End in sight to H’town’s wall ‘nightmare’?

SARANAC LAKE – The town of Harrietstown may be closer to resolving permitting issues with a project that town officials have called a “bureaucratic nightmare.”

Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation, including DEC Region 5 Director Bob Stegemann, met with town officials Thursday to discuss the town’s plan to replace a retaining wall behind the Harrietstown Town Hall that was damaged during the spring 2011 flood. They also visited the site of the project along the Saranac River.

The meeting came two weeks after the town board blasted the two agencies for additional permitting requirements that have stalled the project. Speaking at an Oct. 24 board meeting, Councilman Ron Keough said the town has been “held hostage in a dark-hole abyss” by FEMA and DEC.

The board passed a resolution that night putting the two agencies on notice that they could be liable for any damage to town property if the project can’t be completed before the spring and there’s another flood. They also fired off letters expressing frustration to FEMA, DEC and a host of state and federal elected officials. That led to a call from the two agencies requesting a meeting, Keough said at Thursday night’s town board meeting.

“That meeting was held today with two representatives from FEMA, two from Albany and the state, and the rest of them were DEC, our engineer, our code officer, two representatives of the village, and (town Supervisor) Bob (Bevilacqua) and myself,” Keough said. “They had a long discussion about some of the requirements they additionally needed, which sounds like it’s going to get much simpler in the process.”

The group also conducted a walking tour of the area behind the town hall where the existing retaining wall and the village’s River Walk are located. At the Oct. 24 meeting, Councilman Jim Murnane had criticized the FEMA and DEC officials involved in the review for not visiting the site “to inspect what they were in such a twist about.”

Keough said Thursday’s walking tour “filled in a lot of gaps that they had in their mind.

“They just didn’t understand what was behind the building and what the River Walk was,” he said. “They thought the River Walk went from shore to shore and would impede water flow down through, not realizing that the River Walk adjoined our wall.”

Town leaders thought they had all the permits they needed for the project until this spring, when DEC requested a hydraulic study of the potential impact the new retaining wall could have on the river and downstream shoreline properties. The study was completed and the town subsequently got a permit from the village, which is the area’s flood plain administrator, but at the last minute, DEC and FEMA raised questions about how the hydraulic study was done and requested more information. The village subsequently rescinded its permit.

After Thursday’s meeting, Keough said the two agencies have given the town “a reasonable assurance” that if Joe Garso, the town’s engineer, can provide them with additional information in the next few days “the permitting process should be squared away and brought back to the village for them to reinstate our permit within two weeks.”

“They said by next Friday; that’s what Bob Stegemann said,” Bevilacqua said.

Once it gets the permit, Bevilacqua said the town will complete the bonding process and go out to bid on the project.

“If everything fell into place exactly, they could be out there working on Christmas day, but I kind of doubt it,” Bevilacqua said.

Replacement of the retaining wall has been estimated to cost $330,000. The town plans to borrow the money up front and hopes some of its costs will reimbursed by FEMA, although town officials say it isn’t clear how much funding the agency will provide. The town included a $40,000 bond payment for the new retaining wall in its 2014 budget, which was approved Thursday night.

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.