Wilmington flood regulations shelved for now

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WILMINGTON — After the Select Board last week voted 4-0 to reject zoning updates aimed at flood resiliency but seen as too restrictive by property owners, the Planning Commission will shelve its proposal for a few months.

"So I think that we should take a little break," commission member Meg Staloff said during a meeting Monday, "have a little cooling-off period for people."

Commission members agreed to go with commission Chairwoman Cheryl LaFlamme's suggestion. They will wait until after annual Town Meeting in March to return to the regulations and likely pick them up at their first meeting in April.

Part of their proposal called for establishing a "river corridor," which would allow Wilmington to get 5 percent more in reimbursement funds for recovery from the state through the Emergency Relief Assistance Fund. The state uses it when considering Act 250 permits.

Development within the river corridor would be limited. In areas along smaller streams with watersheds of 2 square miles or less, the proposed ordinance included a 50-foot setback from the top of the riverbank for any new construction.

Another part of the proposal would have required any new residential construction in the floodplain to be 2 feet higher than the base flood elevation, which is a computed measurement based on where waters are expected to rise in a major flooding event that has only a 1 percent chance of being matched or exceeded in intensity in any given year. Commission members are still showing a desire to keep pushing for that regulation.

Property owners have worried their land values would diminish if the proposal moved forward. In addition to the opposition of the proposal, there were concerns about whether enough notice or information had been provided ahead of the vote.

"While I respect the hard work the Planning Commission did in drafting the flood regulations, they dropped the ball on doing outreach to the landowners impacted by the regulations," Select Board Vice Chairman John Gannon, who also serves a state representative for the Windham-6 district, said in an email response to the Reformer. "As a result, many of these landowners opposed these regulations or were not aware of them. I will not support a regulatory change where all parties have not had an opportunity to be heard."

The Deerfield Valley News reported that at the meeting, board member Ann Manwaring said, "We are well into a substantial impact in our community from the severity of storms from climate change. If we don't do the things we need to do to mitigate the impact, we're not doing our jobs. We had enormous turnout here, but only from the people who didn't want it and have a vested interest. We need the other folks, too. The basic core of these regulations was to stop putting things on your property that are going to go downstream and hurt your neighbor's property."

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Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald abstained from voting. He cited his involvement with the process, according to the news report.

On Monday, Staloff suggested the possibility of getting flood regulations updated then going back to establishing the river corridor later.

Commission member Angela Yakovleff said attendees of last week's Select Board meeting commented that mapping for the river corridor had been inaccurate.

"It added fuel to the fire and people really harped on that," she said, "and other people jumped on the bandwagon."

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Yakovleff said the maps are being continually updated by the state.

Staloff expressed regret about not clearly articulating the purpose of the proposal. It was not intended to penalize property owners but to protect their investment, she said.

"So we're just preventing development in vulnerable areas," she said. "To me, that's positive."

Staloff described the meeting as truly contentious. She said "a vocal minority" has been showing up to meetings to oppose the proposal.

"I don't know how we can turn that around in the future," LaFlamme said. "But we need to somehow or other request these people [who support the project] come out and speak."

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Staloff also suggested the potential for the commission take up the flood regulations while updating a local hazard mitigation plan, which expires next month.

Yakovleff said community members were "really angry" that properties within the historic downtown did not need to comply with parts of the proposal.

"They already have much higher standards they have to adhere to, that are historic standards," Staloff said. "They're supposed to comply to the degree to which it won't affect the historic nature of the building and applying these regulations."

LaFlamme said downtown property owners also are limited due to their land being in the floodplain.

Yakovleff raised the question of how to answer to those who say they were not affected by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, which had been the worst flooding event they had ever seen.

"I mean I don't know how to respond to that but I feel like we don't really respond to that," she said. "And how does one respond to that?"

Staloff said with climate change, storms are expected to increase in frequency and severity,

"We're just building a buffer that will last a long time," she said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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