Marlboro College

News Before the Next Flood

Creative Options for Flood Control using FEMA Buyout Properties in Londonderry, Vermont

Marlboro, Vermont – (August  27, 2013) – Together Londonderry residents and a team from Marlboro College’s Center for Creative Solutions (CCS), in partnership with Windham Regional Commission (WRC), explored how to best use soon-to-be town owned properties severely damaged by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene. Participants in the six-day planning workshop held in early August generated three different options for how the buyout properties provide opportunities for flood control and at the same time can be a multipurpose commons for the benefit of residents and visitors. Conventionally, the pairing of these purposes could be seen as mutually exclusive. However, there was nothing conventional about this community planning process.

Two FEMA buyout properties lying at the intersection of Routes 11 and 100 at the entrance to Londonderry’s commercial district were the focus of the workshop. During Tropical Storm Irene, the West River that is held back by the Williams dam spilled over the banks of the millpond, inundating the two properties and then continued down the main street. Chris Campany, executive director of WRC, on the first day of the workshop talked about the town being “disastered on” by the 1973, 1976 and 2011 floods and that the outlook is for more frequent and more severe storms.

Three Londonderry residents, Trevor Bickford, Georgianne Mora, and Tom Platt, participated fulltime in the planning workshop along with artists, planners, environmental designers, engineers, historians, landscape designers and several students. In addition, town officials and members of the Planning Commission and Conservation Commission actively participated in the workshop and engaging the community. “The project is about their home, not just any place,” observed one workshop participant.  

Fellows at the Center for Creative Solutions, the renowned choreographer, dancer and educator Liz Lerman and Richard Rabinowitz, a leading public historian, engaged with the workshop team and Londonderry residents over two days, learning about the constancy of the river in shaping life in Londonderry, as well as, the significance of a community center to the vitality and social life of the community both past and present. Their work on day three of the workshop culminated in a powerful community event attended by over 50 people in which community members expressed the loss from Irene, redefining it into working together to rebuild and imagine a future for the town. 

The workshop invited different perspectives on flood mitigation and the program options developed benefited from expertise provided by CCS fellows, Calen Colby, a civil engineer, and Jono Neiger, designer of landscapes that mimic and regenerate natural systems. Throughout the workshop, residents engaged with ideas as they were being developed. While residents initially were resistant to the idea of dam removal, they came to new understandings about the role of the dam in intensifying flood conditions by talking with Calen Colby and engaging with the different ways to control floodwaters, one of which is to remove the dam.

The workshop team developed three options for the ways the buyout properties could address the critical issue of flood control and at the same time be a community place with multiple uses. One option is to remove the Williams Dam so that the river’s natural channel can return and consequently the millpond above the dam will drain. Fairly rapidly thereafter bulrushes and other aquatic plants beneficial to water quality and habitat will return and fill in the land once occupied by the millpond. Silt and sediment built up over years in the millpond will need to be dredged prior to removing the dam. Todd Menees, River Management Engineer with the state of Vermont, indicated dam removal is the best solution in terms of the health of the river and flood control. In developing this option workshop participants proposed to replace this iconic town feature by reusing the granite stones for a water feature that creates the sound of falling water.

A second approach is partial and phased removal of the dam, implementing short- term strategies to realize long-term flood mitigation. Recognizing that natural systems respond to a disturbance with a variety of solutions not just one, this phased approach permits studying the impact of breaching the dam on the river channel, wildlife and habitat. Maintaining the dam and engineering flood control by building naturalized berms on the two buyout properties so as to contain water in times of flooding is the third option.

Each of these three options includes a multiplicity of ideas for using these sites for recreation, events and public information. Currently, Williams Park, which abuts one of the buyout properties, is the site for the lively Saturday farmer’s market. Each of the options incorporates the Farmers market and one plan includes a naturalized amphitheater for music and other events. In addition, particular features of an option lend themselves to particular opportunities; for example, the engineering option offers beach access to the millpond. Each plan also considers ways to connect the two sites, which are separated by Route 11, traffic calming, pedestrian access, parking, sound buffering, staging ground for activities and seasonal and night uses.

A fourth option is for the town to make modest programmatic improvements to the sites and not address the issue of flood mitigation.

Catalyzed by the CCS workshop, Londonderry residents are energized and forming a task group to widen the conversation in the town. A report detailing each of the options will be produced.

“Londonderry stepping forward to grapple with the critical issue of flood mitigation will be an example for other towns,” said Sharon Crossman, chair of the Londonderry Planning Commission. The issue of flood mitigation is not just local, but regional since actions shaping the river by one town will affect the towns below it. Crossman noted, “if each town lying along the river did its part, it would significantly limit the devastation and loss experienced in recent storms.”

Photos available on request.

About the Center for Creative Solutions:

The Center for Creative Solutions brings together experts from multiple fields and community stakeholders to find solutions to challenging issues facing cities and towns in urban, rural and suburban settings. The CCS collaborative process involves looking at a problem systemically, provocative questioning of assumptions and reframing the issue from an interdisciplinary vantage point to open up new thinking. Immersive, studio-style workshops provide a learning experience for post-graduates and working professionals that is interdisciplinary, collaborative, socially engaged and ultimately creative.

About Marlboro College:

With locations in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains and downtown Brattleboro, Marlboro College provides independent thinkers with exceptional opportunities to broaden their intellectual horizons, benefit from a small and close-knit learning community, create a strong framework for personal and career fulfillment, and make a positive difference in the world. At the undergraduate campus, founded in 1946 in the town of Marlboro, and our Center for Graduate and Professional Studies in Brattleboro, students engage in deep exploration of their interests – and discover new avenues for using their skills to benefit themselves and others – in an atmosphere that emphasizes critical and creative thinking, independence, social justice, sustainability, and community

About Windham Regional Commission:

In the absence of county government, the Windham Region Commission provides the essential link between local, state and federal government.  A public entity, constituted by law and required to meet statutory obligations, the Windham Region Commission is an important resource to the 27 towns of the Windham Region in Windham, Windsor, and Bennington counties.  Its mission is to assist towns in Southeastern Vermont to provide effective local government and work cooperatively with them to address regional issues.  Towns choose to be members of the WRC.

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