Home News and Features Troubled Site Could End Up Protecting Downtown Montpelier

Troubled Site Could End Up Protecting Downtown Montpelier

0
The house at 5 Home Farm Way in Montpelier will have to be demolished as part of the process of turning the 18.5-acre site into a restored floodplain just north of downtown. Photo by John Lazenby.
A determined group of partner organizations is taking steps to convert an orphaned land parcel in Montpelier into floodplain. Long in legal limbo, 5 Home Farm Way and its dilapidated farmhouse has hosted an encampment of unhoused people and even seen gunfire. 

Yet thanks to the parcel’s generous size and its key position upstream of downtown, reconnecting it to the Winooski River as floodplain could help protect the city from the kind of severe inundation it experienced last summer.

“We’re looking at this as an enormous opportunity for floodplain restoration,” said Ben Doyle, president of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which is leading the effort. “Our hope is that it’ll have an impact on floodwater in downtown Montpelier next time there’s a flood.”

People in Montpelier “are anxious for progress since the flood,” Doyle added. “This one’s rolling.”

Last December, the Preservation Trust made a successful grant application to the Flood Resilient Communities Fund through Vermont Emergency Management, including approval for a buyout. The grant totaled $395,510, and its funds derive from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021. 

The grant will allow the trust to pay off the site’s mortgage — though the trust “will never own the property,” Doyle clarified — plus remove its buildings and complete an engineering and site design to prepare the site for floodplain restoration. 

A Group Effort

The trust pursued that grant based on a memorandum of understanding with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the city of Montpelier, and the Vermont Community Loan Fund. The memorandum included stipulations that the conservation and preservation easements will remain in place, preserving public access; that signage will be installed regarding the property’s history; and that the city will assume site ownership.

The trust has a co-preservation easement on the house along with the Conservation Board, which also has a conservation easement on the parcel. Other stakeholders in support of the plan include the Montpelier Historic Preservation Commission, and the Montpelier Commission for Recovery and Resilience — which Doyle credits with finding a way forward. 

The Commission for Recovery and Resilience “identified a path for the Flood Resilient Communities program. Before, there was no mechanism to do it,” Doyle said.

So far, the trust has signed contracts or gotten quotes for preliminaries such as an environmental study, archaeology, and historic document preservation. It is also working to resolve right-of-way issues with adjoining property owners. 

“We believe that this work will really start in earnest either this fall or the next summer,” Doyle said.

The grant won’t pay for actual restoration of the site to floodplain, however. Doyle said they will work with the city to apply for larger grants to do that.

A Troubled History

Ownership of the 18.4-acre parcel, including its historically significant but ramshackle Jacob Davis farmhouse, has long been unclear. 

Previously, a nonprofit called Foodworks, Inc. held a mortgage for the parcel with the Vermont Community Loan Fund. When Foodworks dissolved in 2014, part of the mortgage remained unpaid, and 5 Home Farm Way fell into a legal gray area. 

“It’s been stuck in a morass for at least 10 years,” Doyle said. 

Meanwhile, unhoused people have gravitated to the old building, not always peacefully. On one occasion a gunshot from the site struck a school bus full of children (“School Bus Gunshot Came from Encampment” at montpelierbridge.org/2023/11/confirmed-school-bus-gunshot-came-from-encampment).

A 2022 engineering study concluded that restoring the farmhouse, which was inundated and further damaged in last summer’s floods, is not practical. Razing it would address the health and safety risks its continued presence poses, according to the trust’s application letter.

But, Doyle added, “it’s not just about ‘Let’s get the house off the site.’ It’s about how you move the earth around to restore and reconnect floodplain.”

More to Restore

Rivers are dynamic structures, naturally meandering side to side within their corridors. That endangers buildings and other structures in those areas. Experts have long called for more elbow room for Vermont’s rivers. 

Restoring floodplain means re-establishing the natural, dynamic structure of a river and its immediate surroundings so that it functions as it did before development. 

Allowing spaces like parks or fields to function as floodplain means letting rain-swollen streams to naturally overflow into them as needed after heavy rains. Floodwaters parked safely in those spaces aren’t harming structures elsewhere. (Floodplain restoration can create other benefits, too, such as recreation areas, wetland habitat, groundwater recharge, and stable riverbanks.) Creating these spaces can require active steps like buyouts and earth-moving. 

Some communities did this after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. For example, Northfield bought out 18 flood-damaged homes and restored the floodplain they had been on, creating Dog River Park. In 2023, the park held on to enough floodwaters to lower flooding in the nearby Water Street neighborhood by six inches, according to Lake Champlain Sea Grant. A similar effort took place at the Waterbury state office complex, where some areas of land were lowered by three feet to serve as a kind of bathtub during floods. 

Doyle said he hopes this effort will inspire efforts to restore floodplain elsewhere, such as the Berlin Mobile Home Park and the VTrans Central Garage site. As well, Vermont’s newly passed Flood Safety Act [S.213] has given the state more power to regulate development in high-hazard river corridors.

“It’s important in and of itself, but it’s more important if it can serve as a domino to allow other floodplain projects to aggregate around it and hopefully make a difference,” Doyle said. 

UNDERWRITING SUPPORT PROVIDED BY