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Whatever happened to Gov. Scott's big, bold idea for Barre's recovery?

A conceptual drawing shows a park with an angular point surrounded by several new buildings, overlaid on a black and white photo of a city from above
Black River Design
Courtesy of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
A conceptual drawing for a gateway park in Barre City by Black River Design and provided courtesy of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Gov. Phil Scott visited Barre City in the wake of last summer’s historic flooding to lay out his vision for the future.

The Republican governor came to the city council in October to propose an ambitious project to make his hometown more resilient to extreme weather. His pitch was straightforward: flooding like this will happen again, and Barre can’t simply build back what it had before.

“These 100-year storms are turning into 10-year, decade storms instead. And that end of Barre will be hit again, I believe,” he said at the time.

That night, Scott unveiled rough architectural renderings for a completely reimagined North End neighborhood. In these, all homes and apartment buildings within a five-block stretch were demolished to restore the floodplain and create a new recreational space dubbed “Gateway Park.” On the outskirts of that park, at higher elevations, Scott proposed building a variety of housing — including apartments, condos and single-family homes.

More from Vermont Public: Gov. Phil Scott pitches 'something big' for Barre City's flood recovery

But a year after the flood, ambitions have been scaled back. Instead, recovery for Barre is proceeding in a much more piecemeal fashion.

The city is at work on several projects that adopt many of the themes of the governor’s proposal, particularly as it works to make as much land as possible available for affordable and dense housing development. But the larger, comprehensive vision remains out of reach, according to City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro.

“The governor had the drawing for the whole neighborhood. We haven't done that, because we don't have site control for that,” he said.

The city has begun the process, alongside the state’s recovery office, of undertaking voluntary buyouts, and about 60 property owners have applied. But many people aren’t ready to leave their tight-knit community behind.

There's a different kind of resilience that's not based around a landscape — that's based around people,” said Pam Wilson, a volunteer with Barre Up, the local long-term recovery group. “Often, people want two things at the same time. They want to stay in their neighborhoods, and they don't want to be flooded again — and so they're in this conundrum.”

More from Vermont Public: One house is destroyed in Barre landslides as flooding loosens up the ground

Not too long ago, housing in Barre was reliably cheap, but rents and house prices are now rapidly rising — as they are everywhere across Vermont. According to Pat Moulton, the state’s recovery officer for central Vermont, the housing crisis is one major difference between the state’s post-Irene recovery and today.

Even with cash from a buyout, homeowners worry that won’t be enough to find anything comparable to buy in the area or even the state. So when the state proposes to demolish their home to make way for a floodplain, Moulton said residents often reply: "Where would I move?"

“I don’t have an answer for that,” she said.

A view of Barre City on July 12, 2023 after flooding. The Stevens Branch is visible on the right side of the image.
Vermont Agency of Transportation
A view of Barre City on July 12, 2023 after flooding. The Stevens Branch is visible on the right side of the image.

In certain respects, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rules pit municipalities against homeowners, according to Storellicastro. Properties that are bought out with FEMA cash must become permanent green space in order to restore the floodplain. That’s problematic in a place like Barre, which is desperate for more housing and a larger tax base. And so sometimes, it’s the city that stands in the way of a buyout.

“If you're not adjacent to the river, if you're not clustered with another set of properties adjacent to the river, the city has low interest in buying you out. That doesn't mean you didn't get devastated by this flood,” Storellicastro said.

More from Vermont Public: How one Barre, Vermont neighborhood is trying to clean up after chest-deep floodwaters

Funding, unsurprisingly, is the other problem in Barre’s recovery. When Scott pitched his idea to the city council, he expressed confidence that federal cash could provide the bulk of the public subsidies necessary to undertake such a large redevelopment plan. Specifically, administration officials were eyeing a special HUD program that provides flexible funding to distressed communities in the wake of federally-declared disasters.

But that would have required Congress to authorize new funding. And these days, Washington is not signing off on a lot of new spending.

There's probably not much that's happening until after the election at this point. So the answer is no, that nice manna from heaven has not happened yet,” Moulton said.

Moulton does think there are other opportunities to secure federal cash, and she’s currently at work on a joint grant proposal for Barre and Montpelier that could secure up to $20 million from the EPA. She thinks it might even help finance the housing project Barre City hopes to see built on the downtown parking lot it has agreed to sell to a local affordable housing developer for $1. But she’s upfront that the grant is no guarantee, and that cobbling together funding this way will be a slog.

Teddy Waszazak, a Barre City council member, has a pithy saying about the two things that Barre’s recovery needs. That’s “contractors, and bags of cash.”

And while Scott’s state budget proposal did include tens of millions of dollars to help communities put up the matches needed to draw down FEMA funding, Waszazak noted it omitted much of the other aid municipalities and flood survivors requested.

“The governor's office has not sent us contractors and has not sent us any bags of cash,” he said.

A man stands in a muddy driveway and looks at a house
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
Rep. Peter Anthony looks at his flooded-out garden and home of over 45 years in Barre on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023.

This winter, Democratic Rep. Peter Anthony went to the Statehouse to advocate for more flood relief — as a lawmaker, but also as a flood survivor himself. Last summer’s flood brought several feet of water into his Barre City home, which abuts the Stevens branch of the Winooski, rendering it completely inhabitable.

He and his wife, Marsha Kincheloe, have lived in the home since the 1970s, and rebuilt after several floods. But now, they think it’s time to go, and have applied for a buyout.

“I joke and say, ‘Look, you know, this is 45 years, two kids, you know, divide it out. It doesn't owe me anything,'” Anthony said.

He and his wife now rent a one-bedroom apartment above their antique store in downtown Barre as they wait to hear about their buyout application. It’s not ideal, and Anthony isn’t sure what will happen next, but he’s also cognizant that he’s in a better place than many others who were flooded.

“I may or may not be able to buy a permanent replacement thing that I own. But I certainly can live until I die and pay the bills,” he said.

Like Waszazak, he thinks the governor should be bringing more of the state's resources to bear on the recovery effort. But he also thinks some of the pushback in the community to Scott’s big idea for Barre wasn’t quite fair.

“If you ask people right away — many of whom are still traumatized — so what do you want? The answer you may get is, ‘Well, I want my past back.’ Well, gee, sorry. Climate change, and the storm, really dashed those hopes,” he said.

But even if rebuilding in place is not the most prudent, it remains the only option for many.

Prem Linskey, the construction manager with Barre Up, frequently works with homeowners who are trying to rebuild, whether that’s by walking them through the permit process or connecting them to contractors or volunteer labor.

Often, his job boils down to helping people reestablish a sense of normalcy — even though they might very well remain in harm’s way.

“I feel for the homeowners that have no other option that would love to sell and move to a place that doesn't flood,” he said. “But there's no affordable housing in this state anymore.”

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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