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Vermont Governor Unveils Redevelopment Plan for Flood-Ravaged Barre City

Wed November 01, 2023 - Northeast Edition #24

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott attended Barre City's council meeting Oct. 24 alongside several top administration officials to unveil a massive redevelopment proposal for the north end of the city that was walloped during last summer's catastrophic statewide flooding.

Scott and the other state officials offered the plans, they said, to help the Granite City rebuild more resiliently — and be first in line to draw down federal funds if they become available.

Drawings presented to the council, prepared by Black River Design, a Montpelier architecture firm, at the direction of Scott's office, revealed a completely transformed north end neighborhood, according to VTDigger, a statewide news service.

Plans call for demolishing most homes and apartment buildings along a five-block stretch from the intersection of North Main and Beckley streets to Fifth Street — which saw heavy flooding in July — to make way for a large park.

A mix of new housing construction, including high-rise and mid-rise buildings and single-family homes, would be built on the new park's outskirts, including an eight-story, 80-unit residential building between Fifth and Sixth streets. If fully realized, the proposal would remove 92 existing housing units and replace them with 225 new homes and apartments.

State officials emphasized that their ideas were intended as a rough first draft and would not be imposed from on high.

"This is not etched in stone," Scott told the Barre City council. "This is a concept — a vision for what I see could be helpful to the city and to the region."

Doug Farnham, appointed by the governor to lead the state's flood recovery efforts, stressed that while officials in the capital city of Montpelier were eager to kickstart planning, they would take their cues from local leaders and the community.

"We want to respect your local visions for growth," he said. "Again, we're bringing these sketches as a starting point for a discussion."

Farnham also stated repeatedly that to assemble the property necessary to undertake the project, the state would not take homes against anyone's will.

"We're not going to be forcing this on anyone," he said. "The buyouts will be voluntary."

Barre City Area Was Ground-Zero for Vermont's Floods

Scott, who grew up in Barre City, and his administration have begun referring to the Granite City as ground zero for July's floods. While many Vermont communities saw immense damage, the wreckage in that community stands apart, they said.

The state picked up 4,000 tons of debris from Barre City in the weeks following the floods — more than two-and-half times what it collected in neighboring Montpelier, Farnham told the city council in another meeting earlier in October. About 16 percent of all Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) individual assistance claims in Vermont have been paid out to Barre City residents, he said, representing a "very, very heavy concentration."

"We always look back and compare the event to Irene," Farnham added, referring to the 2011 tropical storm. "And if you do, you don't find such a dense concentration of damage in Irene that we did this time around."

Gov. Scott Anxious to Obtain Flood-Recovery Funding

Scott administration officials also pointed to congressional timelines to explain the speed and scale of their proposal. The governor described speaking to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at an event they both attended recently, when the senator "said there's some opportunity in Washington right now," Scott noted.

"There is extra money that is put into the disaster relief fund that is going to be up for grabs, so to speak," he continued. "But there's nothing that is being appropriated, individually or spread throughout the states. It's first come first serve. So, we need to act quickly, and I took that to heart."

In response to questions from Barre City councilor Teddy Waszazak, though, Scott clarified some of the funds the administration was eyeing would require additional congressional approval.

"I agree that we definitely need to have federal money to do whatever it is we're going to do with the north end. But … when the legislature reconvenes in January, is the administration going to propose any direct aid from state dollars to the city to help get things started?" Waszazak asked.

Scott replied that he and his team were "very hopeful in talking with our congressional delegation" that federal funds could cover the bulk of such a project.

"That's our goal, without having to dip into local resources in any large-scale capacity, or into state funds either," he added. "But time will tell."

In speaking with VTDigger after the meeting, Farnham said that while the supplemental FEMA budget approved by Congress when it narrowly averted a government shutdown in late September should provide more money for Vermont to undertake buyouts, the project would require far more to actually develop the area. In particular, the Scott administration is contemplating using Community Development Block Grants, he said, if additional funding comes through in Congress' next spending bill.

The federal dollars Vermont seeks will have to make their way through a divided Congress where Republicans in the U.S. House just recently elected a new speaker in Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.

But Vermont's congressional delegation has also had trouble getting its own party to give Vermont much special consideration thus far. Despite letters and in-person appeals from Sanders, President Biden omitted a laundry list of the delegation's state-specific flood recovery requests from his supplemental budget request for FEMA last summer.

Sanders' office did not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the federal funding they believed might be available. Instead, a spokesperson for his office provided a written statement from his state director, Kathryn Van Haste, stating that Sanders had "fought hard to bring every possible federal resource into our state to aid our people, town, and state as a whole."

"As Vermont moves from response to recovery and rebuilding, Senator Sanders is working closely with Governor Scott, the Biden Administration, and others to make sure impacted communities like Barre, Montpelier, Johnson, Weston and many more can determine how they want to rebuild stronger than before, as quickly as possible," she said.

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