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Officials alarmed by apparent rebuilding of manufactured home park in floodplain

Several new-looking manufactured home units are staged in a parking lot
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public
Several new-looking manufactured home units were staged in a parking lot next to the Berlin Mobile Home Park on June 11, 2024.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

Construction activity at a manufactured home park in Berlin that flooded catastrophically last summer is raising alarm bells among state and town officials, who have hinted at possible legal action to stop the work.

The Berlin Mobile Home Park is located on a narrow stretch of land off the Barre-Montpelier Road, right alongside the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River.

After floodwaters swept through the park last July, dozens of residents were displaced.

Since then, the park has sat uninhabited, with numerous flooded-out homes still onsite as of earlier this week. On Tuesday, a construction crew could be seen rehabilitating a home at the back of the park. Closer to the entrance, a new concrete pad appeared to have been recently poured. Several new-looking manufactured home units were staged in a nearby parking lot.

A gravel driveway leads to a spotless concrete pad
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public
A new concrete pad appeared to have been recently poured near the entrance to the Berlin Mobile Home Park on June 11, 2024.

Officials are concerned about the construction.

“I have observed work at the park that I don’t feel is in compliance with floodway regulations,” said Ture Nelson, acting town administrator for Berlin, via phone on Wednesday.

Last August, several weeks after the flooding, Nelson sent a letter to the park’s owner, Randy Rouleau, outlining the steps Rouleau would need to take in order to redevelop the Berlin Mobile Home Park and another, smaller park his company owns nearby called River Run.

Nearly all the land in the 32-unit Berlin Mobile Home Park sits inside the “floodway” of the river, the highest risk designation given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a 2023 analysis by the University of Vermont.

Redevelopment of the two flooded parks would need to comply with town zoning and utility rules, including flood planning regulations that govern building in FEMA’s highest-risk zones. Those rules require raising homes to a specific height, limiting the use of fill in the floodway without an engineer’s sign-off that the development won’t increase flood risks nearby, among other rules.

Work at the parks would require permitting through the town’s development review board, Nelson wrote in his letter. The parks would also need to be connected to municipal water and wastewater infrastructure. Nelson urged Rouleau to meet with town staff to discuss how to move forward.

That meeting never happened, according to Nelson. The town’s zoning administrator, Thomas Badowski, confirmed Wednesday that the park owner had not submitted the relevant permit applications for work at the parks.

Rouleau has not responded to repeated interview requests.

 A woman wearing boots takes a photo of mattresses and other discarded belongings on the side of a road in a manufactured home park
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
State Rep. Anne Donahue surveys damage at the Berlin Mobile Home Park on July 25, 2023.

When it comes to floodway regulations generally, Nelson said, the stakes go beyond the bureaucratic step of securing a permit for construction.

“As terrible as it was for all the residents at the park last July, we were in fact lucky that nobody lost their life,” Nelson said. “That’s what we’re trying to protect here, you know, with the permitting and the floodway designations.”

The River Run park appeared largely abandoned on Tuesday, a stark contrast to the signs of redevelopment at the Berlin Mobile Home Park down the road.

Asked Wednesday if he saw the owner’s work at the Berlin Mobile Home Park as illegal, Doug Farnham, chief recovery officer for the state, said, “I believe so.”

In recent days, state officials have been in touch with the town about possible legal action, Farnham said.

“The state has been in contact with the town of Berlin about whether or not an injunction should be issued, and what that would look like,” Farnham said.

Nelson declined to confirm whether he has been speaking with state officials about taking legal action against the park owner.

But Ned Swanberg, a Vermont regional floodplain manager for Washington and Orange counties, confirmed Wednesday that conversations have been underway about legal action against the park owner.

Beyond potentially placing future inhabitants of the manufactured home park at risk, flouting floodplain regulations could also jeopardize the town of Berlin’s participation in the National Flood Insurance Program, Swanberg said.

Berlin takes part in a special incentive program that provides residents with a discount on flood insurance premiums, Swanberg said. When towns adopt higher regulatory standards for building in the floodplain, along with boosting public information about flooding to residents and developing detailed flood response plans, they can get lower flood insurance costs in return. Berlin has one of the strongest rankings in the state, Swanberg said, earning residents a 15% discount on premiums.

If the town is negligent about development that flouts floodplain rules, it could compromise that discount for the entire town, Swanberg said. And if an egregious problem persisted, the town could be placed on probation, he added, limiting residents’ ability to get flood insurance from the federal government altogether.

“That’s not really what we’re looking at here,” Swanberg said, noting that the town has been attentive to the concerns raised at the park. “But that’s why the community is being conscientious.”

Farnham, the chief recovery officer, said the site of the Berlin Mobile Home Park would be difficult to mitigate against future flooding. The park is across a bridge over the river from the main road, making it easily separated from emergency services during a flood, he said. If homes are elevated on stilts, they could still get swept away by fast-moving floodwaters.

In his eyes, both the Berlin Mobile Home Park and nearby River Run would be good candidates for buyouts: an option he said officials plan to encourage the owner “to strongly consider.”

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Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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