We would like to update you on our activities this legislative session working to advance the prospects for the rebuilding of the Norwich pool.
By way of review, the pool was built in 1944 with the construction of a small dam on the Charles Brown Brook. The original dam failed and was rebuilt after a flood in 1973. That dam, constructed of concrete with a timber stoplog spillway and earthen abutments, created a roughly 0.5 acre pond which served as Norwich’s public swimming facility for the next 38 years.
In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene washed away that dam. Following Irene, many Vermont communities qualified for disaster assistance through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding. The town of Norwich did a great job procuring a 95% federal match (estimated at over $500,000) for the rebuilding of the dam and
pool. However, with Vermont legal precedent serving as a controlling factor over dam construction, obtaining regulatory authorization from the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to rebuild a dam is a challenging undertaking.
The 2001 Town of Groton v. ANR Vermont Supreme Court decision established the case law that governs most dam construction in the state. While we won’t take you through the case (you can read it here), it essentially says that absent a record of the pre-Irene stream conditions when the dam was in place, ANR must assess the effect of a new dam on the post-Irene stream conditions in determining whether that new dam will “significantly damage fish life.” This presents a high bar for regulatory approval as the Charles Brown Brook has recovered to its “natural state” in the years since Irene. Any new dam construction would quite possibly upset this “natural state” and “significantly damage fish life.”
We recognize that the fish biologists at ANR do important work and local considerations related to recreation are not part of their assessment. However, we share the frustration of the many Norwich folks with whom we’ve discussed the pool issue. The Charles Brown Brook already has two existing dams, one man-made dam above the swimming pool and a natural dam below. The swimming pool dam would only be in place during the summer months when stream flow is at its lowest ebb. Fish life in the brook is modest to begin with. And FEMA has a half-million dollars burning a hole in its pocket to fund the rebuilding of the pool. Importantly, that funding source will expire in November 2016.
We have had numerous meetings and conversations with ANR officials regarding the Norwich pool and Margaret Cheney and Kathy Hoyt had deep involvement in those discussions during their years as state reps. All the while, the town of Norwich has worked on its application to ANR and received formal feedback last June on a preliminary proposal for construction. One of the options we have explored in consultation with ANR is a legislative path to streamline the approval for dam construction. In February, we introduced H.237 in hopes that it would allow ANR to authorize the reconstruction of the Norwich pool without upsetting the precedent established by Groton. ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz and her staff have been very helpful as we’ve sought to thread the needle between retaining the important environmental protections established by Groton, and the important recreational needs filled by the Norwich pool.
This past week we met with Secretary Markowitz, ANR General Counsel Jennifer Duggan, and Norwich Planning Director Phil Dechert. From that meeting, we concluded that the legislative path we were exploring would not shorten the path for approval of a Norwich dam application, and would likely elongate the process. Secretary Markowitz and her staff have developed helpful suggestions on how Norwich’s application might be strengthened by addressing some of the effects of dam reconstruction through mitigation elsewhere on Charles Brown Brook. At our most recent meeting, Secretary Markowitz emphasized the importance of moving forward with the formal application process in order to meet the FEMA funding timing constraints. In the meantime, we will continue to explore any opportunity to enhance Norwich’s prospects for a successful pool reconstruction application. We look forward to a practical solution...and to joining you at the Norwich pool for the grand re-opening.