As feds want to decommission a dam in Ridgefield, residents retain legal representation

RIDGEFIELD — After assessing “multiple alternatives” to keep a dam near Fox Hill Condominiums online, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is upholding its recommendation to decommission it.

Talks surrounding the dam recently resurfaced when the NRCS released a new report in March containing modifications relative to the project’s costs. Stakeholders, however, only received notice of that report much later in a June 3 letter.

A decommissioning and removal of the dam was projected to cost $1.6 million, while a structural rehabilitation was projected to cost $6.3 million. The new report stipulates that it would cost more than $850,000 to decommission and remove the dam and $8 million to fortify it in compliance with current regulations.

Both the NRCS and the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which owns the dam, would pay the proverbial bill.

The report also includes details about a potential rehabilitation plan for the dam, which the public can view on NRCS’s website. All comments and concerns submitted in reference to the plan will be accepted until Aug. 20 and addressed in the final report.

A case for decommissioning

The dam is located east of Danbury Road, southeast of Fox Hill Drive in Ridgefield’s Norwalk River watershed. It was constructed by the NRCS in the late 1970s as a flood-control measure.

Although the dam is “not in danger of breaching,” it does not meet “high hazard dam criteria,” said Tom Morgart, NRCS state conservationist.

In 2004, the dam was reclassified from significant hazard potential to high hazard potential by the NRCS and DEEP’s Dam Safety program due to the possible threats to life, property and infrastructure in the event of a potential breach.

“Through hydrologic studies, we estimate that if the dam should breach, up to 24 people can be killed downstream,” Morgart said.

Morgat inferred that if the dam were decommissioned, it would pose less of a threat to residents who live downstream from it in event of a “100-year storm.” Increased development upstream, he explained, has caused rainfall to reach the dam more quickly than if it were to travel through a field or a forest.

“This dam has a 100-year lifespan, but most of the dams that NRCS has put in across the country are not in such developed states,” he said. “Dams in more rural areas … last a long time because the land use is remaining very constant.”

Morgart noted rainfall events statewide have increased significantly as a result of climate change. In Fairfield County, 12.5 percent of properties are at substantial flood risk, which is defined as being projected to experience a flood of one centimeter or more in the next 100 years, according to data collected by The Porch Group, a company that provides software and services to home service companies.

Out of all large U.S. counties, Fairfield County carries the 11th biggest flood risk.

Residents resist

The report outlines two residential properties along Ridgefield Brook that would be adversely impacted if the dam were decommissioned: 4 Brookside Road and 91 Great Hill Road. The residents who live there, Nancy Lincoln and Chris Hopkins, have retained Hartford-based Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP as legal representation.

“We’re gonna push to have the government buy our properties … so that they (can) take all the risk of depreciation and damage” if the dam is decommissioned, Hopkins said.

Based on the analysis, residents who live along the Norwalk River in that location could see the wetlands on their properties increase by an average of 0.16 percent with the dam decommissioned. That accounts for almost 20 percent of Lincoln’s property.

Her son, Bill Ostrand, argued that such action would cause neighbors to see a diminution in their home values. “Who would want to buy a house that is now in a floodplain?” he posed.

Lincoln has lived at 4 Brookside Road for 20 years. In that time her home has weathered two hurricanes and a “bad storm” in 2010, which caused “serious flooding” around Route 7, she recalled.

“That was a pretty serious storm, (but) I didn’t have any issues here — I never had water in my basement,” she said. “When the stream is pretty full some of (the watershed) does come up into my yard, but never in my basement, never close to my house, so I just don’t see the necessity.”

Next steps

On Thursday, First Selectman Rudy Marconi held an informational meeting at the Recreation Center to update residents on the situation. He told attendees the state had retained the engineering firm Tata & Howard to conduct a third-party review of the dam, and that the town would hold another meeting with representatives from the NRCS and DEEP the week of July 19.

“There are many questions we hope to have answered prior to any decision being made, and I think the state of Connecticut feels the same,” he said.

His position, he told Hearst Connecticut Media prior to the meeting, is, “If something’s not broken, don’t fix it. You can do all the modeling (and) projections, (but) Mother Nature has a mind of its own, and we don’t know what the impact of these changes will be.”

A hard copy of the plan is available at the Ridgefield Public Library and on NRCS’s website. Those interested in submitting a comment by regular or electronic mail can visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com