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Council Approves FEMA Property Buyouts

Katie Swick, owner of 127 Elm Street in Montpelier, stands in front of her substantially damaged home the day the flood waters subsided, July 12, 2024. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Three Montpelier property owners may soon get some relief from their home losses caused by the flood last July. On March 13, Montpelier City Council unanimously approved applying to acquire the three flood-damaged homes, using money that will largely come through hazard mitigation funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The valuations will come from appraisals of what the properties were worth the day before the flood, according to a presentation made by Josh Jerome, Montpelier’s community and economic development specialist.

Property Buyouts Approved

The properties are located at 189 State Street, 197 State Street and 127 Elm Street. The buyouts are “a mitigation to get people out of harm’s way for future floodings,” when there is a historic repetitive loss of structures, according to information from Jerome. Those three properties are considered to be substantially damaged due to the flood — meaning that the cost to repair them would be more than 50% of the structure’s market value before the flood, Jerome said. Once the government closes on the property purchase, the community of Montpelier becomes the owner. From that point on, the property becomes publicly owned and can never be developed — with a notable exception. The property can have public restrooms located there, and nothing else. Otherwise, the areas can be used for river access, green space, a wildlife refuge, or even a parking area, as long as it is not paved. However, it can never be sold to a private individual, though it could be sold to a nature conservancy.

How are the properties acquired? First, they are made available to states and communities following a presidential disaster declaration. Then, property owners apply via an annual application deadline set to occur in May, though the deadlines can be extended. Properties can also be acquired under the Swift Current Flood Mitigation Assistance Program associated with properties insured under the National Flood Insurance Program for places that suffer repeated losses due to flooding events.

 “All three (properties) are in areas in the community considered to be repetitive loss zones,” Jerome said.

Vermont Emergency Management also created a source of funding through Act 74 for mitigation projects not eligible for FEMA funding. Jerome said he hopes to get the applications in soon, so they are in line to receive funding at the earliest opportunity. And, to further identify who is involved in the process, Jerome presented a slide titled “Who Is Involved” that listed The Vermont Emergency Management, property owners, FEMA and the City of Montpelier.

Property owners Mary Zentara, Ed Haggett, and Katie Swick spoke of their situations following Jerome’s presentation. Haggett said he is still unhoused and worried about having to pay the expense of elevating the house if the FEMA buyout payments don’t come through. Swick, who owns 127 Elm Street with Kirby Keeton, said she is living in a rental apartment, but has not yet gotten FEMA rental assistance. 

“It is a really hard decision to take a buyout and take down a house that has been part of the community since 1860. I find it challenging, but it seems I’ve got to go with the options that are there right now,” Swick said. “This house has been flooded many times before and maybe it is time for it to be a park for everybody to enjoy it. I’d like to see it be a place where there is river access. In this part of the city there is no access to the river and it is a beautiful spot when it is not flooded.”

Lisa Edson Neveu of 191 State Street, also spoke, although she’s not applying for a buyout. She said she is not on the list because she’s still living in the damaged house with her two children. The home has no kitchen and no downstairs bathroom, she said, explaining she cooks on a grill. “If we were to get bought out we would be homeless — with nothing. We have so little equity that it would leave us with nothing,” she said. 

Jerome said Edson Neveu’s property could possibly receive money from the state or from FEMA, but she needs to submit a design. “Elevations are trickier than buyouts,” Jerome added.

New Zoning Rules Discussion Continued

City Council voted to continue the discussion on adopting new zoning regulations following talks on solar shading rules and urban residential designations. This was the second public hearing on the topic. Cary Brown’s motion to approve all zoning changes, except the solar regulation, failed for lack of a second, when the council realized they were not all on the same page regarding either solar shading rules or urban residential regulations.

Mayor Jack McCullough said he thought Council had agreed to adopt the urban residential rules for the proposed housing development on the Country Club Road property, but continue to look for other surrounding or similar properties in other parts of town where such rules could also apply. These properties potentially include Sabin’s Pasture and property owned by Steve Ribolini, he said. But Councillor Tim Heney said he felt, “we’re not there,” on urban residential zoning, and that, “we’re doing it backward.”

City Manager Bill Fraser said they can’t move forward on the growth center until zoning regulations pass. Brown appeared to agree, saying, “I don’t know if failing to do the zoning will speed the process up. If we don’t change the zoning, we keep the door closed. We can’t get the growth center. We can’t get the TIF. ”

But in the end, after more talk on solar shading, they voted to continue the discussion until April 3.

Council Orientation

Following the above discussions, City Clerk John Odum swore in newly elected and re-elected council members. Adrienne Gil of District 1 beat out incumbent Dona Bate on Town Meeting Day and attended her first meeting March 13. Mayor McCullough and members Sal Alfano and Cary Brown were re-elected. Then, City Manager Bill Fraser gave a presentation about the City Council’s structure, governance and operations.

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