In Weston, locals decide between preserving downtown and preventing future flood damage
There are signs all over Weston of what the raging waters of the West River left behind when it jumped the banks and roared through downtown in July.
Piles of gravel and dirt stand along Main Street and behind the post office.
A giant banner thanking the community hangs from the front of the Weston Theatre Company Playhouse.
And on the north end of town, waterlogged equipment from the Weston Market Place is still stacked up outside the store.
Lifelong area resident Jessica Perkins said the still-shuttered market place is a steady reminder of life before, and after, the flood.
“It’s been hard not having it here,” Perkins said recently, while stopping by the town’s post office. “Just like if you just need something quick, you have to drive to Londonderry, which isn’t far, but, you know, if you just needed some milk or bread or something, it was convenient to have it close by, and the gas station as well.”
The Weston Market Place is the only grocery store in this tiny town of about 600 people in southern Windsor County.
And it has the only gas pump.
The store sits along Route 100, in a low lying area along the West River that’s prone to flooding, and was hit hard this summer.
Mehul Dholakia has owned the store for about five years, and this is the second time he's had to close and rebuild after a flood.
"It’s always scary when you're behind a river, let's put it that way,” Dholakia said. “I mean, it's a piece of land that, you know, is going to keep flooding.”
Dholakia said his flood insurance will likely go up after the most recent flooding.
And as climate change threatens more storms, more often, Dholakia wonders about the long-term viability of continuing to operate a village store so close to the river.
So he's asking the Weston Select Board to support a FEMA buyout of his store, which is assessed at just under $195,000.
“I mean at some point it becomes not viable. Because then you put so much money, and so much effort, and so much into it that you're never going to recoup your losses. So it's better to just close it down at that point.”Mehul Dholakia, owner Weston Market Place
“I mean at some point it becomes not viable,” Dholakia said. “Because then you put so much money, and so much effort, and so much into it that you're never going to recoup your losses. So it's better to just close it down at that point.”
The FEMA buyout program was set up to take buildings out of the floodway, and also to give the river room to spread after flood events.
But there are downsides. Properties that are bought out can never be redeveloped. And Weston, like many village communities in Vermont, is desperate to hold onto its local store.
Local select boards have to approve any FEMA buyout that happens in their town.
At a recent select board meeting in Weston, board member Jim Linville said it’s not going to be an easy choice to sign off on the deal.
“A really good argument could be made that, that is a fundamental part of the soul of our town,” Linville said. “And if we support the buyout, then that piece of land gets cleared, and that’s it. It never gets developed again.”
Whether it’s a home or a business, the town loses a taxable property — and with a business like a village store: so much more.
“It’s really hard to be on a select board in a small town and to be forced to make that type of decision,” said Stephanie Smith, Vermont’s Hazard Mitigation Officer.
Her office works with towns across the state that are contemplating FEMA buyouts.
Since the July floods, a lot’s been written about if Vermont communities can somehow move away from the river valleys, where they’ve been settled for hundreds of years.
Smith said it’s these local decisions — that are made one property at a time — that can move the conversation forward.
“I want us to be looking out as far as we can, and strategically making decisions around how we move away from our rivers over time, and that happens at the local level,” said Smith. “And I’m hoping that having this significant event where it just rains too much helps us start to have those hard conversations.”
There have been about 170 buyouts across Vermont since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. And most of them have been single family homes.
It's rare for a commercial property owner to ask for a FEMA buyout.
“It’s really hard to be on a select board in a small town and to be forced to make that type of decision.Stephanie Smith, Vermont Hazard Mitigation Officer.
Seth Jensen is with the Lamoille County Planning Commission, and in towns like Johnson and Cambridge, Jensen said he expects more discussions about whether it makes sense to reinvest in downtown commercial properties that are close to rivers.
“I think there’s more discussion now than there was in 2011 about strategic reinvestment in areas that are safer from flooding,” Jensen said. “And figuring out how to do what we need to do to begin shifting the development patterns in that direction.”
Jensen says communities need to have grocery stores that are accessible and in village centers. But at the same time, if vital resources like grocery stores or pharmacies shut down after every flood, that doesn’t serve the community, either.
“And so this is really an existential challenge of potentially losing that, or potentially having that in danger from a flood. There’s not an easy answer and it’s a lot to weigh for a local volunteer, certainly,” he said.
In Weston, the board has agreed to consider a FEMA buyout of the village market place, and they've requested the necessary paperwork to get the complicated, slow-moving process going.
But they did so with the clear stipulation that they may not ultimately support the idea.
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