Op - Ed
October 23, 2015

Pittsfield Select Board hears from concerned citizens on FEMA buy-out properties

By Wendy Reese

As an appointed Pittsfield Select Board member, one of my greatest concerns in our town is dissemination of information, particularly when it comes to town business. While we post about meetings in three public locations and we have the minutes and agenda on the town website, you have to be proactive to see them. This becomes particularly problematic when residents are asked to sign a petition regarding town activity when the information provided is not thorough.

Case in point: the current Select Board inherited the resolution of a grant for a proposed park on the site of three Tropical Storm Irene FEMA buy-out properties. The Select Board has tabled the topic until a public hearing by the awarded engineers/contractor, DuBois & King. In the meantime, we are continuing to take public comments. This issue is beginning to feel like a tempest in a teapot. I would like to share what information the Select Board has available to us in the hope that this brings more awareness of what is (or isn’t) happening with and on these three properties.

Conditions and restrictions on the properties

In accordance with the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, 44 C.F.R. Part 80, there are certain restrictions and conditions in perpetuity for the buy-out properties. This includes being dedicated and maintained as open space for the conservation of natural floodplain functions. It could be used as a park for outdoor recreational activities, wetlands management, nature reserves, cultivation, grazing, camping, unimproved, unpaved parking lots, buffer zones. No new structures or improvements can be erected except:

A public facility, open on all sides and functionally related to a designated open space or recreational use;

A public rest room; or

A structure that is compatible with open space and conserves the natural function of the floodplain.

Conceptual park design

The conceptual design of the park had plantings (trees and shrubs), unpaved parking, a walking path, erosion mitigation, and a sign. The design prompted a petition from Mr. Billy Leimgruber, who lives to the west of the proposed park, at the Aug. 4, 2015, select board meeting to stop forward progress on the park.

Town Clerk Patricia Haskins was tasked by the Select Board to contact Vermont League of Cities and Towns for guidance on what to do with the petition. Gwen Zakov, staff attorney at the Municipal Assistance Center shared that there is no state law that allows a petition to contest the park or require a town vote. The properties are now town properties and the town cannot restrict access to them. While the petition is not supported by a state statute, she suggested the Select Board hold a meeting to hear concerns and assess the input. The board heeded the advice and took public comment at the Aug. 4, 2015, meeting.

At that meeting, 26 residents were present with several asking questions or providing comments (please see the town minutes.) Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, White River Partnership, and DuBois & King (the awarded contractors for the project) were also present to provide information and answer questions.

The Select Board discussed allowing a town vote after the DuBois & King public hearings and before finalizing the draft(s) for the proposed park; however, no motion was made.

The conceptual design for the proposed park includes both “gray infrastructure” (parking lot, walking trail, etc.) and “green infrastructure” (berm removal, riparian buffer restoration, etc.) improvements.

Benefits provided by the green infrastructure improvements primarily are twofold:

1) The removal of gravel and debris remaining from Tropical Storm Irene at both the south end of site and at the confluence of the South and West Branches of Tweed River. The goal of this improvement is to reduce erosion along this stretch of the Tweed River. Removing the piles of gravel and debris will allow water to spread out across the site during a flood. Water moves more slowly across a floodplain, which decreases the erosive power of flood water along this stretch of the Tweed River.

2) The planting of native trees and shrubs along South Branch of the Tweed River. The goal of this improvement is to enhance bank stability. Planting native trees and shrubs along the face and top of the river bank will create an interlocking system of roots that will stabilize the bank while reducing erosion and improving water quality. Native tree species like birch, dogwood, poplar, serviceberry, sycamore, and willow grow along the Tweed River, and thrive in wet, river-side soils.

Then the Select Board received six options from the Planning Commission, ranging from taking no action at all on the properties to a more formalized park.

The Select Board agreed to table discussion until after the DuBois & King public hearing.

The Select Board approved their Local Hazard Mitigation plan at its Aug. 4, 2015, meeting. Under the section “Ice jams/Flash floods/Flood/Fluvial Erosion,” section 1 reads: “Maintain, review and enforce the town’s newly adopted and strengthened flood hazard regulations, which include river corridor/fluvial erosion hazard language. Use this language for hazard mitigation purposes. (Mitigation).”

The implication of this is that the town is responsible for fluvial and river erosion mitigation on all town owned properties, including the proposed park properties.

They also approved the easements (in a 2-1 vote) required as a part of the buyout to provide public access to the Tweed River through these properties, in perpetuity.

Concerned citizens

Mr. Leimgruber emailed me directly, which I shared with the Select Board and included in the Oct. 15, 2015, select board meeting’s correspondence. He stated: “Why the town thinks it can do as it pleases without democracy is a shame and a crime. To think that we, the majority, are being represented by the likes of such involved around this sham is poor at best. May I remind you that you all work for the town’s best interest with the voters in mind.”

Mr. Leimgruber presented a second petition to the Select Board at the Oct. 6, 2015, meeting that read: “Petition summary and background: With all the public lands in and around our town of Pittsfield, Vermont. Would you like to pay for another with additional tax dollars for maintenance, trash removal ext[sic]… For access to the Tweed River???? Action petitioned for: We, the undersigned, are concerned citizens who urge our Select Board Members and Planning Commission to hear our voice and stop the forward progress of this park. Simply said ‘it’s a bad idea.’ This is our second attempt so thank you all who signed the first petition and this as well.”

The petition had 35 names, signatures, and addresses, 25 of which are registered voters in Pittsfield. As with the original petition, no state statute exists requiring the Select Board to take action on the petition.

However, the Select Board has heard every comment received regarding the park and recognizes the concerns of the citizens. The Select Board is, however, responsible for meeting and maintaining the criteria in the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan which includes river and fluvial erosion mitigation. Simply stopping “the forward progress” of the proposed park is not as simple as it may appear. Likewise, tabling of the topic is in no way the Select Board’s attempt to ignore our residents and their concerns.

The Select Board continues to invite public comments to be emailed to townofpittsfield@myfairpoint.net or sent to Town of Pittsfield, PO Box 556, Pittsfield, VT 05762.

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