FEMA Gives Norwich $460,000

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Norwich — Federal officials last month approved funding for three infrastructure projects in Norwich using money originally meant to replace the Norwich Pool dam, which was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

In a Dec. 20 letter to town officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released up to $460,000 to finance new equipment and facility renovations for the Norwich Public Works Department, as well as the removal of the wreckage of the dam, which created the town swimming hole on Charles Brown Brook.

“I think it’s been a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief at the same time,” interim Town Manager Dave Ormiston said of the reaction from residents. “It’s been such a lengthy process ... that I think that people felt as though this was never going to come.”

Based on a system that reimburses disaster aid recipients for their costs in repairing the damage — or, in this case, making tangentially related improvements — FEMA will cover the bulk of a gross $604,000 outlay for the three projects, Ormiston said.

That leaves Norwich about $145,000 in expenses that town leaders plan to pay out of existing funds, which will not affect residents’ taxes, he said.

The two infrastructure projects may begin this spring or summer, he said, and the equipment purchase could happen as soon as town leaders confirm the cost and specifications.

That promises to put to bed a long and contentious process of making use of the federal money.

Town officials, hoping to use the relief funds to restore the dam and Norwich Pool, wrangled for years with Vermont environmental regulators over the latter party’s reluctance to approve the construction of any in-stream barriers.

After the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources in 2015 denied Norwich a permit to rebuild the dam, town officials had an internal debate over whether to take the state to court.

The Selectboard eventually opted not to appeal the decision, and instead sought federal approval to redirect FEMA disaster funding to some of the town’s other needs.

Despite a deadline scare about a year ago involving the state officials who coordinate with FEMA, one of whom told the Selectboard that they were running out of time to secure the money, Norwich eventually settled on three projects: removing the dam remnants, renovating the highway garage and repairing a culvert on Route 132.

The culvert idea, however, was scrapped when town officials last spring learned that FEMA gives a low priority to funding projects that already receive federal money from other sources, Ormiston said. Federal highway dollars already finance the maintenance of Route 132, he said, making the culvert a less viable option.

Town leaders decided to buy a front-end loader for the Public Works Department instead — a purchase of roughly $158,000, according to Ormiston.

The $433,000 public works renovations will involve repairs to the highway garage’s leaky roof and the addition of more office space, among other improvements; finally, the $14,000 pool cleanup project will comprise the removal of the dam remnants and the restoration of the stream to its natural state.

Meanwhile, Norwich residents may see a substitute for the once popular swimming hole.

On Dec. 20, the same day as the FEMA letter, the Norwich Pool Committee, a group formed to investigate replacement options for the dam, recommended that the town install a “streamside” pool near the washed-out barrier.

The committee in its proposal cited analysis from Jeff Goodrich, an engineer who also is chairman of the town Planning Commission, indicating that a pool that diverted water and then returned it to the stream would be more acceptable to the Agency of Natural Resources than the restoration of a dam.

The panel is scheduled to hear public comment on the idea tonight during a 7 p.m. forum at Tracy Hall.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.