Harrietstown board blasts DEC, FEMA

SARANAC LAKE – The town of Harrietstown board teed off Thursday on the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over additional permitting requirements that have stalled the town’s plan to replace a retaining wall behind the town hall.

“It’s a bureaucratic nightmare that is costing the taxpayers money,” said Councilman Jim Murnane.

Councilman Ron Keough said the town is being “held hostage in a dark-hole abyss.”

The existing stone and concrete retaining wall, which runs along the Saranac River, was undermined during the spring 2011 flood. Town officials plan to replace it with a 120-foot, pre-cast retaining wall, but they’ve said the project has been held up due to permitting requirements from multiple state and federal agencies, including DEC, FEMA, the state Adirondack Park Agency, the state Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

After town leaders got all the permits they thought they needed, they learned this spring that DEC requires an additional hydraulic study of the potential impact the new retaining wall could have on the river and downstream shoreline properties. The town hired Joe Garso of Saranac Lake-based North Woods Engineering, who did the study. Town officials subsequently got a permit from the village, which has the final say on the $330,000 project as the area’s flood plain administrator, and planned to replace the retaining wall before winter.

However, town Code Enforcement Officer Ed Randig said DEC and FEMA are now raising questions about how the hydraulic study was done.

“We had a second conference call with FEMA and DEC,” Randig said at Thursday night’s town board meeting. “That second round of discussion basically culminated in additional mathematical work on the part of our engineer to finalize the hydraulic study.”

“Not additional work,” interrupted Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua, “work that they never requested.”

Bevilacqua said about 20 people were involved in the conference call, including representatives from DEC, FEMA, the town and the village, and Garso.

“It’s the second meeting where we’ve come out of it nothing but frustrated,” Bevilacqua said. “Joe explained to them what he did, how he came up with the calculations he came up with, and they essentially don’t believe him.”

“I’d like to express, on behalf of those who were at the meeting, absolute and total frustration with New York state DEC and FEMA and the runaround that seems to be there,” Keough added. “This is my personal opinion, but I think the town of Harrietstown is being targeted on this issue.”

The village has now suspended the permit it gave to the town to replace the retaining wall until the issues raised by DEC and FEMA are resolved. Bevilacqua said FEMA strong-armed the village into suspending the permit.

“FEMA gave them a not-too-subtle threat that if we didn’t follow their guidelines, which we have followed the guidelines, that anyone who has flood insurance in the village, and I think there’s 85 policies, they’d have a $50 surcharge the first year,” Bevilacqua said, “and that if we didn’t do anything after the first year that the policies would be canceled, and that if there’s another high-water event and flooding, that there would be no assistance from FEMA for anything.”

“If every piece of property from the (Lake Flower) dam down got washed out, there’s no money,” Keough added. “Clearly a threat.”

Randig said part of the problem is FEMA’s outdated mapping, which he said the agency is using to analyze potential flood areas in the village.

“Basically they’re looking at a 1980s study, and that’s all we have to go by when it comes to flood determinations,” he said. “They’re basing their analysis on old, antiquated information.”

“I think it’s important to note that none of these people on the call from DEC or FEMA ever visited the site at any time, never came to inspect what they were in such a twist about,” Murnane added.

The board agreed to have Bevilacqua write a letter putting the two agencies on notice that they could be liable if the town can’t replace the retaining wall before winter and there’s flooding in the spring.

“If there’s another event and the back end of this building goes, you’re accountable,” Keough said.

Councilman Barry DeFuria asked Bevilacqua to send the letter “to everybody you can think of,” including the town’s state and federal representatives.