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Select board opts not to pursue grant for Mad River erosion mitigation

November 30, 2006

By Lisa Loomis

After going back and forth on the idea for quite some time this week, the Waitsfield Select Board decided not to go forward with a federal grant application for funds to mitigate stream bank instability, erosion and gravel deposition along the Mad River in Waitsfield Village.

Late this summer, the select board began exploring FEMA hazard mitigation funds to help stop river bank erosion upstream of the Waitsfield Covered Bridge. Nearby landowner Chris Pierson asked the board for help because stream bank erosion has consumed 35 feet of his Fuller House property in the past five years.

Pierson and others were present at the board's November 27 hearing when board members debated whether or not the town should go forward with seeking the federal grant. To apply for the highly competitive federal grants, the town would need to fund engineering study for approximately $6000.

At issue is the question of whether and how the town should be shoring up the banks of the Mad River as a public safety issue and whether, in pursuing help in erosion mitigation, the town is setting a precedent of assisting private landowners.

After Pierson first brought the matter to the board, the board heard from Ray Dougherty
of Vermont Emergency Management about the federal 75/25 matching grant. The board then solicited a bid for the engineering study needed to apply for the grant.  In the meantime, Pierson solicited bids for rip-rapping the eroded banks on both sides of the river upstream of the Waitsfield Covered Bridge. That bid came in at $20,000.

At this week's meeting Agency of Natural Resources staffers Shayne Jaquith, Fayston, and Kari Dolan, Waitsfield, were present to discuss river morphology with the board and to explain how/why simply rip-rapping the banks might not be the best fix for that section of river.

Jaquith explained that rivers need to be able to meander, noting also that rivers need to be able to process sediment so that the amount which comes in also flows out. He said that channel straightening and other man-made interventions in rivers (such as gravel dredging) destabilize rivers.

Dolan added that for many years the state opted for 'spot fixes' which in the long run amounted to treating symptoms rather than the inherent river instability.

"Now we're not offering Band-aid approvals for someone's problem so that we don't export the problem to the next downstream landowner. We need to be careful not to worsen conditions for other landowners," Dolan said.

Pierson pointed out that he has received state permission to shore up the banks and specifically wanted to offset the costs of that work by dredging the gravel out of the middle of the river where it has accumulated. State regulations limit how much gravel can be extracted from the river.

"I'm told the only way to protect my property is to dump truckloads of gravel (and money) on the banks," Pierson said, adding that while he was prohibited from offsetting the cost of his project with gravel from the river, Sugarbush was able to extract gravel from its snowmaking pond further upstream along the Mad River.

Jaquith pointed out that removing the gravel from the Mad River in front of Pierson's property may result in a 'sink' which would recruit more gravel for that void.

"What do we do here? We have to create some kind of intervention. We're facing not the geologic timeframe but this real timeframe and we need to do something. I wish we were able to talk to Barry Cahoun," said acting select board chair Charlie Hosford.

Cahoun also works for the ANR, and permits gravel extraction and alterations to stream banks.

"I'm concerned with setting a precedent here. If we set this precedent this time, and someone else comes in to complain about the same problem, we can't say that the other bridges or property aren't worth saving," board member Paul Hartshorn said, referring to erosion issues at the Butternut Hill bridge.

"I think I recognize an independent town obligation to deal with threat to and of the town from the flows in this river," board member Sal Spinosa noted.

"Well rather than spend $6000 on a study, why not take that $6000 and add another $4000 and work with the Chris Pierson and his $10,000 to do the project right? Why gamble on an engineering study for a grant we might not get?" Hartshorn asked.

"As a board typically move forward after getting some level of information before we spend taxpayer money. You may know from experience how doing the project might work, but I don't. So that I feel comfortable I would like the information," Spinosa responded.

After further discussion, the board decided not to go forward with the grant or the engineering study. Board members asked town administrator Valerie Capels to invite Cahoun to the board's next meeting on December 11 to see if there are not simpler solutions that the state of Vermont could help provide.

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