Vermont residents losing land to river corridor regulations

Photo by Lou Varricchio

A realtor and former selectman from Sharon, Vt., Kevin Blakeman believes that the state has over-reached its authority when it comes to what he can — and can’t — do when it comes to developing private property situated along Fay Brook near the White River. (Photo by Lou Varricchio/TNR)

SHARON, Vt. — Kevin Blakeman has enjoyed his 60-acre homestead along bucolic Fay Brook in Windsor County for more than 40 years, but since his town adopted river corridor regulations, he’s not so sure how much of his property is truly his own.

The area received the brunt of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, and while residents have gotten on with their lives the memory of the impact of the weather event lingers.

But Blakeman is worried for an entirely different reason. Since the town embraced the state’s restrictive Sharon Flood Hazard Area bylaw and River Corridor Regulations, his developable land appears to have shrunk.

With retirement on the horizon, the realtor and former selectman would like to be able to develop a 15-acre portion of his property, but the town says he can’t because Fay Brook may flood some day, causing erosion around his property or properties downstream.

Blakeman told True North he believes the river corridor rules are draconian and un-American, and that the flood hazard maps have been arbitrarily drawn.

“I don’t want to come across as a nut case, but I’m a big proponent of property rights. When you own something you have some rights, right?” he said. “When the town of Sharon passed the river corridor regulations it sounded wonderful, yet it didn’t go as well as you think it might. It’s just not practical.”

The Vermont Rivers Program, managed by the Agency of Natural Resources Department of Environmental Conservation, uses statewide mapping to delineate “river corridors” that must remain free of concrete fixtures that constrain and direct rivers away from houses and buildings. Such attempts to direct and straighten river channels, while useful under normal weather conditions, are viewed as flood hazards when major storms hit.

So far, about 70 percent of towns have rejected the regulations. However, Blakeman says Sharon’s ordinance prohibits building new development where you have to cross a “fluvial hazard,” such as a place where you must cross a brook to get to the property.

“Since nearly every road in town is named after a brook, there’s an awful lot of property that’s on the backside [of streams] — it’s unfortunate,” he said. “I am not calling attention to this concern just for myself; there are a lot of Sharon landowners who aren’t even aware of these new regulations.”

The Agency of Natural Resources would like to see more communities like Sharon adopt the regulations in the post-Irene environment.

Officially, ANR states “if river corridors are not protected at the community level, the state will bear an ever-increasing burden … in terms of flood disasters and the human misery they cause when there are less and less places on the landscape where streams can expend the flows and erosive energy of a flood.”

Blakeman isn’t alone

Other Sharon residents are unhappy with the regulations.

At the Aug. 21 Selectboard meeting in Sharon, resident Walter Radicioni stood up to object to a letter that he received from Sharon’s new flood hazard administrator, Geo Honigford.

According to the minutes from the meeting, Radicioni was in the midst of rebuilding a barn on his land when Honigford dropped by to inspect the site. Radicioni says he was shocked when the administrator told him that he needed a flood hazard permit before he could proceed.

Not wanting to lose the money he put into the rebuilding project, Radicioni quickly submitted the required application. In a few weeks, he received bad news: his permit was denied, leaving his barn rebuilding work in limbo.

The minutes state: “Mr. Radicioni described the events that led to demolition of the barn and further stated he has all kinds of documentation about when the barn was taken down. Selectmen encouraged Mr. Radicioni to follow the process of appeal outlined in the letter and to submit all his evidence to the Development Review Board.”

Photo by Lou Varricchio

Roadside marker along the White River showing the high-water mark of Tropical Storm Irene from 2011. (Photo by Lou Varricchio/TNR)

True North contacted Honigford, but he declined to comment beyond saying he was “too new” to the job to provide a clear picture on what landowners felt about the ordinance.

Honigford, the owner of Hurricane Flats Farm, an organic produce operation in nearby South Royalton, erected a roadside marker showing the high-water mark of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 — a reminder of the flood hazards along the White River.

Blakeman said that if he applies for a permit to build along Fay Brook he will likely be declined. He added that state officials haven’t been willing to get involved.

“I have tried meeting with Gov. Phil Scott’s office staff,” he said. “State Rep. David Ainsworth did arrange a personal meeting with Director of Policy Development and Legislative Affairs Kendal Smith, but that lasted about five minutes. She said that she would have Julie Moore, the new secretary of Agency of Natural Resources, call me — but that was the end of that.”

Ainsworth, a Republican serving his first term on the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, told True North he has serious concerns regarding the ordinance. He also confirmed that Blakeman has been in touch with him and has helped expose concerns following Sharon’s adoption of the ordinance.

“I am going to pursue this [issue] a little bit more,” Ainsworth said. “I live in Royalton, and land below me along Vermont Route 14 on the White River, which is 14 feet above the highway, is designated as a no-development zone; nothing can be put on it. Yet houses along Route 14 are exempt. It seems arbitrary to me. I feel this isn’t the way laws should be.”

He added that he’s seen a shift at ANR so that “there’s more attention (in waterways) than in agriculture, which is economically more significant to the state.”

Peggy Ainsworth, the state legislator’s wife, serves on the Selectboard in neighboring Royalton. She said her board turned down the river corridor ordinance several years ago.

“Our selectboard rejected it,” she said. “It came down to the fact that the ordinance encompassed a lot of property that the board didn’t think necessary. In looking at the map, there were certain areas in the [flood] danger zone that, in practicality, weren’t in a danger zone.”

Meanwhile, Blakeman said he wants to educate others about what he sees as a government trend toward “Big Brotherism.”

“This regulation was passed on the sly, and most property owners in my town don’t even know it happened,” he said. “It’s time that someone shine a light on what amounts to a government taking of private property.”

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at lvinvt@gmx.com.

24 thoughts on “Vermont residents losing land to river corridor regulations

  1. Hey Matt, welcome to Vermont. Since when have the great fathers in Montpelier given a hoot for the little guy.

    • The irony is that arguing to allow landowners to do whatever they want in a floodplain ends up costing the taxpayers more in the long run…

      Who paid to buy back homes in the floodplain after Irene? Who pays to find FEMA so they can assist homeowners in floodplains?

      • Actions have consequences.
        Building in areas that have potential to flood, expecting to be bailed out by OPM (Other Peoples’ Money), is presumptuous at the expense of taxpayers.
        Case in point: Galveston/coastal Texas. All essentially sea level flood plain; great wehn the bucks were there during the oil/gas boom.

        Bottom line, ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice. like it, or lump it.

      • I assume you’re willing to make these lands that have no practical use anymore tax exempt because if you’re not it does appear to be an unconstitutional taking

  2. At our town meeting I reminded our Selectboard that it is an unlawful taking under the Constitution and if the town wanted to do this they must compensate the landowner of it pre-condemnation price. In essence they should remove those sections of the land condemned from the tax role and pay a fair market price for them.
    Pretty simply isn’t it?

  3. Whatever happened to the truly free Vermont that we once use to have in that state? Gone in favor of massive socialism, bureaucracy, and even fascism of the elite and the power mongers I guess. Sad.

    • The truly free Vermont started to change and become what it is today started around 1964.
      I believe, caused mostly by the influx of outsides.

  4. It seems to me that if localities want to establish these kinds of restrictive regulations, they should have to buy the land from the current property owner/s or give them a pass from paying taxes on that land. I’ll bet too that these owners still have to pay high property taxes on land they can’t develop or use as they want. That seems wrong, even illegal, and certainly un-American.

    • Massive pinprick in the bubble:
      There are no property “owners”. We are all RENTERS / TENANTS. If you find that hard to believe, just try not paying your property rent/tax for a few years and then watch while you are evicted by the REAL OWNERS. Kinda makes unnecessary their having to “buy” the property.

      If you haven’t learned about UN Agenda 21 by now, I’d say it’s high (water) time. While the events in Pownal are bringing the issue more to light, more of us need to see it.

  5. So this guy wants to build in a floodplain so he can sell some “affordable housing” and make some cash. Here’s the thing….when that “affordable housing” floods (which it will) and potentially increase the potential for additional flooding downstream, this guy’s project ends up costing the taxpayers. How about this…he agrees to pay for the additional costs to the taxpayer for building in the floodplain, or goes with the river corridor plan.

    Or, he can just wait until the river removes the land from him…

    • If this man can’t use his land as he wishes as its legal owner, then his property taxes should be reduced considerably for that portion of his land or removed entirely.

        • The suggestion that the town should buy floodplain land is silly. If zoning setbacks from your property boundary limit what you can build in that area of your land, then the town should buy that too?

          River corridor easements merely limit what a landowner can do in a floodplain. There are plenty of things one can still do. Do you actually think it is a good idea to allow people to build in a floodplain? Who will pay for the associated costs when a house/structure floods?

          • “There are plenty of things one can still do.”
            You are certainly welcome to enumerate them.

            “Do you actually think it is a good idea to allow people to build in a floodplain?”
            That’s the land “owner’s” decision. To say “allow” is to presume otherwise.

            “Who will pay for the associated costs when a house/structure floods?”
            If you’ll kindly enumerate those “associated costs”, I’ll be happy to answer your presumptuous question.

          • No matt you have used your land for a purpose and the restriction here is dimensional, not a use restriction. If you’ve made the land practically useless it should be tax exempt

      • I agree and that is how this works. Essentially it is a conservation easement so the property value decreases for the floodplain land. Landowners are not having the land taken from them, they are merely being told they can not build in the floodplain. Do you want to build in a floodplain? It seems to me that anyone who does aint too smaht….

        As per usual, True North Reports missed a whole lot of the details…

        • Some make a fair point as to taxpayers paying flood damage costs not covered by insurance premiums paid by property owners. But what if the property owner is willing to assume the risk of damage, and the cost of repair, when a flood occurs? This seems like a fair compromise, that preserves both individual rights and responsibilities.

          • I mentioned this in a comment above, and I too see it as a possible fair compromise. If a landowner wishes to build in a floodplain and is willing to pay all associated costs of said actions, he/she should be allowed to do so.

            I do see a few issues with this however. The potential costs to the taxpayer for administering this “program” would likely be considerable, especially given the legal fees that would likely be involved given possible ownership changes, or legal battles that may follow.

            Additionally, like all natural systems, rivers are highly unpredictable and the impacts of one landowners actions in a floodplain may have negative impacts downstream on others’ property. A landowner may be willing to take the risk for his own property, but what about other’s? If I build in a floodplain and the results of that action cause damage to my neighbor’s property, am I not then responsible?

    • Clearly you find it just hunky dorey that someone else’s property rights have been infringed upon by regulations that expand their scope seemingly at the will of the regulators. The river is easier to deal with.

      When it’s your own property that’s being marginalized , you will then scream the loudest.

      • I suggest reading the regulations provided with the article so you can see the “allowed uses” for floodplain lands for yourself.

        “The river is easier to deal with.” The best way to deal with the river is to leave it to naturally adjust throughout the floodplain, hence said regulations. The issues arise when people put structures in the floodplain, and attempt to force the river to do something it will not do. Rivers always win and if we still need to have that conversation in 2017, we got serious issues…

        One major issue here not mentioned by True North is that these regulations are primarily being brought about by the the insurance industry. If a landowner builds in a floodplain, they are not going to get insurance for said structure. Therefore, when it floods, which is will, it becomes a burden to taxpayers. Who pays for FEMA? Who pays to then buy the flooded house back from the owner?

        • ” we got serious issues…”
          What skrewl you went? If you meant “…we HAVE serious issues…”, I totally agree, among them being those like yourself who would deign to presume the position of authority over another’s private property.

          And screw the insurance industry! Subsidised by the government forces they lobby to enrich themselves they are as much a part of the problem as the likes of you.

          FEMA’s role in this comedy exists mainly to control and add to the ever growing list of “Don’ts” that inhibit our liberty and growth with which, until they affect you personally, you will totally agree.

          Gotta love you liberals.

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