May 25, 2023

Darien officials: New pipe priority list could ease flooding

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A view of a drainage grate on Seagate Road in Darien, Conn., on Friday May 12, 2023. Darien conducted a drainage study on the Salt Box Lane neighborhood for flood risk covering it and neighboring streets like Coachlamp Lane, Gardiner Sreett, Thomasina Lane, parts of Seagate Road and into Holly Pond.

DARIEN — With expensive flood prevention projects quite literally coming down the pipeline, Darien officials now have a plan to make judgement calls on whether or not it is worth the price tag.

On Monday, Darien's Board of Selectmen approved a policy outlining how it will make decisions for maintaining or improving the town's flood infrastructure as extensive flaws and expensive solutions emerge after years of flooding studies.

"We did some studies, the town has some projects that they’re doing and then we have our regular maintenance and infrastructure work that we do," said First Selectman Monica McNally. "I felt that it was important that we have kind of a holistic approach to how we’re going to look at all of these elements."

The policy comes on the heels of a proposal for a $6.7 million replacement system in the Salt Box Lane neighborhood after the area, despite not being in the town's floodplain, flooded severely during storms Ida and Elsa in 2021 because of outdated, too-small pipes.

Though residents and the town's public works director Ed Gentile appeared eager to move quickly on the fix, the selectmen adopted a cautious stance on approving such an expensive purchase without a full understanding of the costs, all possible recommendations and the potential for more work from similar drainage studies like the near-complete Tilley Pond study could uncover.

Now, the town policy includes four objectives to meet when deciding what projects to invest in: do no harm, ensure a "reasonable" number of properties are improved, there are "meaningful" improvements made and following planning and zoning and drainage manual standards.

Essentially, that means making sure the flooding flows into larger bodies of water — rivers, streams or Long Island Sound — without affecting other neighborhoods. It also means that costly projects benefiting a small number of properties "will not be considered."

The focus will be toward getting the best coverage for the cost, so the town might consider a 50-year storm plan over an 100-year storm plan if there is "adequate protection," McNally said.

A potential rejection could also apply if a multi-million dollar project proves far more expensive than the damage to one or two properties.

Town administrator Kate Buch also said the town does not have an obligation to mitigate flooding on private roads, though it may take on responsibility if backups are caused by town pipes.

"It's a difficult concept for people sometimes," Buch said. "As the government, we are not responsible for everything, and flooding is a prime example of that."

The policy also prioritizes a bigger picture approach to addressing flooding infrastructure based on expert assessments and studies as needed. All mitigation proposals presented to the town now must include a cost/benefit analysis and assessment of the impact on taxpayers.

The need for a big picture view of all recommendations and costs was something selectman Jon Zagrodzky initially brought up during Salt Box Lane discussions, something he said the board did not have at that point.

The purpose of the new policy, Zagrodzky said, is to provide a framework for the selectmen to "say no" when making decisions on infrastructure.

"It's very, very hard, I think, in a policy to specifically quantify what we would and would not approve or what standard we would or would not build," Zagrodzky said. "Ultimately, it's going to have to be our judgment… on a case-by-case basis, that we collectively would say, ‘Given the facts that are presented to us, (this) feels like a reasonable decision.’"

Determining what a "reasonable" number of homes or "meaningful" improvement is, a concern selectman Sarah Neumann raised, will depend on the circumstances.

"Some things will be subjective," said Buch. "There's no way around it."

The policy also requires the town to look for alternative funding including state and federal grants and local business cost-sharing arrangements.

It also includes maintaining the town's current flooding infrastructure and keeping an open channel of communication with formal updates in meetings and involvement with homeowners affected by floods.

All decisions would still have to go through the normal approval process through the Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting, and Zagrodzky made it clear the policy could be modified if needed.