By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — A decades-long, culvert-by-culvert struggle with property owners over flood-control projects was described by a town engineer to the Flood and Erosion Control Board at its Wednesday meeting.
The long discussion came after Chairman William Mazo last month asked Ted Gill, an engineer with the Department of Public Works, why the town hadn’t acted on some of the studies of flooding problems over the years.
“The answer is we did take action,” Gill said, “but without having a significant amount of public support and push to get these things done, which we have not seen since the early 1970s.
“And without having a flood board and an administration in town that is willing to condemn properties, to force our way in to getting these things done … when [we] negotiate easements individually, that’s what takes time.”
Support for flood-control projects dried up
It was the second consecutive meeting that the board discussed the history of flooding in Westport. At next month’s board meeting, Gill said he’ll discuss the flood-control projects that are planned or in the works.
In 1984, Gill said, the state replaced the culvert for Pussy Willow Brook underneath the Post Road. About the same time, the town began upgrading channels and culverts for Stony Brook.
The next priority, according to a 1979 study, would be the bottom end of Muddy Brook to Greens Farms Road. But, Gill said, no houses there were threatened by floodwaters, so the town decided to tackle the next area upstream, improving the channel south of Center Street and improve the bridge for Center Street over Muddy Brook.
“That was called Muddy Brook Phase 1,” Gill said. “It was done and it was extremely unpopular. As I understand it, between the contractor mishandling the actual project and the design itself, nobody in the neighborhood was really happy.”
The design was a trapezoidal channel lined with crushed stone.
“It flooded a lot, but it was a nice, meandering stream though back yards,” Gill said of the original waterway. “It was aesthetically pleasing and they make it look industrial, and they made it look ugly, and everybody hated it.”
While it solved many of the flooding problems in that area, Gill said, “there was a significant cost to the neighborhood.”
He said people in the area then organized into a group to oppose the next phase of the Muddy Brook improvements, from Center Street to the Post Road about 1984.
The town, Gill said, had submitted its plans to the state, but because of budgeting and staffing shortfalls, two years passed without any comments from the state.
With a lawyer and an engineer, the neighbors challenged the already completed design for the project, and opposed a permit extension the town requested from the Conservation Commission.
The commission denied the extension, and after disagreement over the design, the town decided to use the money to address another problem area, Pussy Willow Brook, at Valley and Guyer roads.
There, the town wanted to improve the channel and replace culverts.
“When it came to the Flood and Erosion Control Board, there was significant opposition from the neighborhood,” Gill said.
Piecemeal approach meant uneven results
The Flood and Erosion Control Board suggested the town move on again, Gill said, and focus on areas where the town could do work without necessarily needing property owners’ permission.
The town followed a piecemeal approach, focusing on individual culverts and asking for landowners’ permission.
For Silver Creek, one landowner refused to allow channel work. Culverts eventually were replaced over a 20-year period, Gill said, but only after a lot of negotiating.
A long, rocky road for Hillandale project
The town refocused on Muddy Creek about 1994, seeking to replace the next culvert upstream from Center Street, beneath Hillandale Road.
That project would have required permission of four landowners
“They were not willing to negotiate for any easements, so the town moved on to the next culvert upstream, Morningside Drive South,” Gill said. In 2001, he said it was completely replaced.
In 2005, Gill said, the town prepared a design for the Hillandale Road culvert and once again approached the neighbors. There was no support.
Gill said the town would not condemn properties to do stream work.
“The town took a step back and said, ‘OK, we’re going to wait until we have what we need for this project,’ ” Gill said.
But a partial collapse of the culvert occurred, and emergency repairs left the Hillandale culvert with even less capacity it had in the 1980s, Gill said.
In 2019, the town approached the four landowners again.
“This time, we do have support from the four homeowners,” Gill said.
The town issued a request for qualifications last December. A meeting is set for Friday (Feb. 4) to chose an engineer to design the project.
One of the four landowners by the Hillandale culvert joined Wednesday’s Zoom meeting.
“What is going on out here is absolutely out of control,” neighbor Catherine Carr said of the flooding. She asked what could be done to speed up the process.
Gill said that in addition to negotiating easements, designing the projects and getting the permits from the state takes time.
Funding, he said, has not been a problem for such projects, he said.
“When we go to the RTM, we make our case and we have never been denied,” Gill said.
Could ARPA money buoy efforts?
Mazo wondered if the board may be missing “a golden opportunity” to obtain a share of the $8.4 million in federal pandemic-relief money being allocated to Westport through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Gill said ARPA funding was considered for projects that are shovel-ready or in the pipeline.
Carr said that two of the four property owners nearby the culvert are new to the area.
“We all got together and agreed that this should be fixed,” she said, adding that she’d been told in 2016 that a Bayberry Lane bridge was the top priority.
Lindsay Bucha Bernsohn lives on Greens Farms Road, where Muddy Brook crosses beneath the road.
“We’ve seen a lot of near-fatal incidents over the last seven years living here,” she said. “I know that there is public support.”
She said flooding affects the commute of people around Greens Farms and beyond.
Art Schoeller, president of the Greens Farms Association, urged Bernsohn and Carr to attend its next meeting, “where we can really kind of organize a critical mass of, in essence, lobbying the town, and demonstrating that there is a critical mass of support.”