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Schoharie County making case to replace bridge

Officials optimistic about appeal of FEMA rejection

Saturday, December 1, 2012
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The historic Blenheim Covered Bridge was the longest wooden, single-span bridge in the world until it was washed away by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.
The historic Blenheim Covered Bridge was the longest wooden, single-span bridge in the world until it was washed away by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

— When a Vermont community sought help to rebuild a historic covered bridge damaged by flooding in 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency responded.

FEMA provided money to rebuild the Fuller Covered Bridge in Montgomery, Vt., and add features to protect it from future flooding.

And when that same bridge withstood Tropical Storm Irene’s wrath last year, FEMA highlighted its achievement in mitigation work, outlining the project in a report on its website, “A Vermont Historic Treasure Preserved.”

So when Schoharie County officials learned their post-flood rebuilding goals for the historic Blenheim Covered Bridge were deemed “ineligible for funding,” they were surprised. Now the county is delving into FEMA history and policy to fight for reconsideration.

The county submitted a 30-page appeal to FEMA, outlining instances where FEMA funding came through for municipalities in similar circumstances and identifying regulations that indicate disaster aid should be directed towards rebuilding the icon once hailed as the longest single-span, wooden bridge in the world.

Built in 1855 by the Blenheim Bridge Company, the 210-foot covered bridge was listed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Parks Service as a National Historic Landmark and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The bridge was one of only two structures in New York state designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers — the other is the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.

Losing the structure was a major blow for the town of Blenheim, hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene’s flooding. The town lost other structures in its historic district and suffered severe damage to more than 30 buildings, including the town hall, post office and firehouse, in addition to damage to more than two dozen bridges and roads.

The bridge carried traffic across the Schoharie Creek until 1931, when another bridge was built and Schoharie County’s Board of Supervisors agreed to retain the bridge as part of a park. Since then, the bridge has attracted guests from around the world while serving as a gathering place for events in and around the tiny park that sits on the eastern shore of the creek.

Schoharie County Flood Recovery Coordinator William Cherry, who is also the county treasurer, said he’s confident the county has a strong case to persuade FEMA to help, especially with its history of repairing and replacing covered bridges in the past.

The Fuller Covered Bridge isn’t the only example. Another FEMA project highlighted in video on the agency’s website shows the early stages of planning to replace the Bowers Covered Bridge in Manchester, Vt., another historic structure devastated by Irene that FEMA is helping to put back together.

“I believe there is a precedent, and I’m very confident that we will win that appeal as time moves on,” Cherry said.

The county’s appeal doesn’t simply center on other projects; it also analyzes FEMA regulations covering eligibility, the restoration of damaged facilities and policy covering the eligibility of individual objects for disaster assistance. For one, an “alternative use regulation” calls for disaster aid for a school building that was converted into a storage facility and damaged in a disaster.

In the 80 years since it stopped carrying traffic, the Blenheim Covered Bridge drew thousands of people for sightseeing and to view nature, so the county argues the bridge’s function and purpose is akin to that of a pier or gazebo.

“The fact that vehicles could not cross the bridge to the other side does not make it ineligible — it simply makes the funding of a vehicular bridge ineligible,” the appeal states.

FEMA told county officials the bridge is no longer utilized for transportation and, citing a policy that covers “Collection & Individual Object Eligibility,” said the bridge therefore can not be covered by disaster aid. But according to the county’s appeal, the policy “sets out to distinguish between normal everyday contents and furnishings that are considered special artifacts” when making funding determinations. That’s the wrong policy to use, the county contends, because the policy doesn’t apply to structures, but instead is limited to “objects of art and other significance that are displayed or stored in buildings.”

The bridge, according to the appeal, is as worthy of replacement as features in the Blenheim park near the bridge like cooking grills, picnic tables and the Honor Roll for Schoharie Veterans that sits on the site.

Cherry said it’s unclear precisely how much time it takes for FEMA to review an appeal and make a decision.

Bringing back the bridge, even a replica, is among a short list of priorities people in the town of Blenheim identified as important to the town’s recovery. The town’s ambitious, multimillion dollar recovery plan spells out it’s importance by stating: “The covered bridge remains a symbol of the town, an emblem on the official town seal, and a recognized icon in the region. The loss of the bridge represents a cultural, spiritual and economic loss for the town of Blenheim.”

An engineering assessment, however, places the rebuilding cost at $3.6 million — more money than Cherry said Schoharie County could come up with in the event FEMA doesn’t reconsider.

“For myself, as treasurer, I don’t see Schoharie County spending millions of dollars to replace the Blenheim bridge and charging the taxpayers to do it,” he said. “With all of the other challenges we face, the truth is that would not be certainly on the top of my list of priorities on how we guide county government through the next five years.”

Cherry’s not expecting the appeal to fail, though. If successful, rebuilding plans and details will require deliberation among those in the town.

“We have to cross the first hurdle, which is make it FEMA-eligible,” Cherry said.

 
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