Gov. Phil Scott pitches 'something big' for Barre City's flood recovery
Gov. Phil Scott is pitching a plan to dramatically redesign the city he grew up in, but some Barre City leaders worry the state’s top elected official is trying to impose his vision on residents and businesses there.
The summer floods hit Barre City harder than any other municipality in the state and damaged about 10% of its housing stock.
Scott, who was born and raised in the Granite City, said Wednesday that he wants to “do something big” to bring the community back from the disaster. And his administration has drafted a conceptual plan that calls for a large new green space in the North End of the downtown, and dense multi-family housing in higher-elevations zones.
“It would be an economic driver, welcoming more people into Barre, and create the housing that we need, and provide for mitigation — allow the water to flow,” Scott said.
Scott said the total cost of the redevelopment plan could exceed $100 million. But he said federal disaster relief funding approved by Congress last month could present Barre with a unique opportunity to reimagine its future.
“I told my team we need to think big,” Scott said. “We need to think about something we can present to our congressional delegation.”
Scott said he’s discussed the plan with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch and U.S. Rep. Becca Balint. And he unveiled his initial “concept” to members of the Barre City Council Tuesday evening.
The proposed new green space is tentatively called “North Barre Gateway Park.” It would encompass an area currently zoned for commercial and residential uses that was also hit hardest by the floods. Renderings created by the firm Black River Design show walking paths, athletic fields and a pool. Scott said the park would also perform an important flood mitigation function.
“We need more storage capacity in the future,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to stop the water. We have to do something to accept it in different ways so it doesn’t do the damage it did in this last storm, because it will happen again. We’re seeing it more and more frequently.”
The renderings also envision four residential complexes, between three and eight stories, that would provide 160 new units of housing.
Barre City Councilor Teddy Waszazak told Vermont Public on Wednesday that he appreciates the governor’s focus on Barre’s recovery.
“We cannot rebuild the North End the way it was on July 9 and pretend that everything’s going to be OK moving forward, and I do also appreciate the fact that the state is paying attention and buying into Barre, because I think we’ve been left out of a lot of conversations,” he said.
But Waszazak said city councilors received the governor’s plan just a couple hours before Tuesday’s council meeting. And he said its unveiling “felt like a bit of a power play.”
“My biggest concern was that people are going to see a map of a governor’s proposal … with an entirely redesigned North End of Barre with dozens of single-family homes being lost. And I think that’s going to make people nervous and make people scared,” he said.
Waszazak said lots of residents have already expressed interest in the buyouts that would be needed to create the new green space. But he said one North End homeowner, whose residence would need to be razed in order to make space for the park, has already expressed opposition to the plan.
He said the governor’s presentation and accompanying maps have touched off a firestorm on social media.
“I’m seeing it on my social media feed — constituents are nervous and surprised," Waszazak said, "and it’s already set social media ablaze with, ‘What are they doing? Why would they do this? Why would they tear this down versus that down?’”
Waszazak said there’s no clear plan for a community engagement process that will be needed to ensure the redevelopment plan serves the needs of all Barre City residents. He said there's also nothing close to a guarantee that Vermont will be able to secure the federal funding needed to pay the massive infrastructure project.
“So my main concern was that this conversation was, ‘Hi, we’re the state, we’re here the help, here’s a map.’ Instead of, ‘Hi, we’re the state, we’re here to help, what do you need from us?’” Waszazak said.
Scott said Wednesday that he doesn’t want to move forward with the plan unless it has broad support from city leaders and residents.
If the Barre City Council signals interest in the idea, then Scott said his administration will begin working with businesses and residents on a path forward.
“We don’t want to force anyone to do anything in this capacity,” he said. “We don’t want to force anyone out of their homes. We want to replace homes as needed.”
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