Vt. program takes aim at flood-prone properties

Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 4:13 PM EDT
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BRANDON, Vt. (WCAX) - It costs seven times more to repair a flooded property than to buy out a landowner before the water hits, according to FEMA. Vermont is taking that approach when it comes to purchasing flood-prone properties in Brandon and elsewhere as part of a program to get homeowners to higher ground.

David Atherton is no stranger to the Neshobe River jumping its banks. “Taken our road out twice -- to the tune of about $550,000 each time,” Atherton said. The Brandon town manager has watched properties on the road flood and rebuild after Tropical Storm Irene and again after severe flooding in 2017.

Six properties along the road were bought out through federal funding after the damage was done. Now, three more are on the block to be purchased -- this time, proactively. “we’d rather see people safe and not keep rebuilding all the time,” Atherton said.

Funding for the new purchases is coming through the state’s new Flooding Resilient Communities Fund. It comes from federal American Rescue Plan money.

“It’s something -- there has been a need we have recognized for a long time,” said Stephanie Smith, the hazard mitigation officer for Vermont Emergency Management. She oversaw the program’s first funding which included nine projects from Brattleboro to Johnson. “Ultimately, the goal is always to reduce risk for as many people as we can.”

The funding also goes where FEMA money can’t, covering properties still at risk of flooding but not in a risk zone FEMA recognizes. “The ultimate goal is that they stay in green open space in perpetuity,” Smith said.

“There is always something on our minds of what we want to do with it,” Atherton said.

For Brandon, the property will remain a space for the river to overflow with minimal damage -- a park, trails, or other recreational areas. And for the folks being bought out, some have built or purchased other property in town or moved somewhere nearby. Atherton says it’s emotional for people to walk away but says he believes they know they are making the right choice. “They understood that it’s not ‘If this happens again,’ it’s ‘when, and how soon,’” he said.

The Legislature has allocated $15 million to fund the program in the coming year. Applications for that round are due in October.

As for Brandon, 13 properties remain before the whole street is bought out.

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