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Riverside Park: floodplain or Frisbee field?

By Rachel Goff

Can a piece of land be both a riparian buffer and a recreation area? Warren Select Board continued this debate in its discussion on the future of Riverside Park on Tuesday, July 22.

Warren accepted ownership of Riverside Park from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) buyout following the flood of 1998. With a sandy bank and a grassy lawn, the Route 100 property became a popular place for swimming, picnicking and Frisbee tossing before its landscape changed drastically due to flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August of 2011.

After Irene, "We rebuilt [Riverside Park] a fair amount because a lot of it had washed away," select board member Andy Cunningham said on Tuesday, but just two years later the property flooded again from intense rain on July 3, 2013, and the debris was never fully cleaned up.

Today, the bank at Riverside Park is partially obscured by brush and the lawn is strewn with rocks and tree trunks. At its last meeting on July 8, the select board debated how to best maintain the property while knowing that it will incur damage from future floods.

The debate is an important one, because "there are very few places in Warren where you can access the river without going across someone's land," select board member Matt Groom said on Tuesday, speaking to the niche Riverside Park occupies in the community.

Before Irene, Riverside Park "seemed like this quintessential Vermont spot that a lot of families fell in love with," select board member Colleen Mays said. Now, "it looks shabby," she said, "and I don't think it represents our town."

While historically Warren has prioritized Riverside Park as a recreation area, the town has also taken into consideration the physical value of the property as a place where the river can expend its energy when water levels are high, thus limiting damage to roads, bridges, homes and businesses.

Corrie Miller, executive director of Friends of the Mad River, and members of Warren Conservation Commission attended Tuesday's meeting to present some of the science behind the argument against maintaining Riverside Park so as not to compromise its role as a floodplain.

In talking about what to do with the property, "We have to be good neighbors," conservation commission member Robin Bleier said, explaining that the town needs to consider "the people down the river."

According to Miller, Riverside Park lies in a spot where the Mad River straightens out and if water were not allowed to go through the park after storms, the next spot the river would attempt to straighten out would be at Sugarbush Resort's snowmaking pond just north off Route 100.

As water is allowed to go through Riverside Park, "it's going to erode," Miller said, "and the channel is going to change." The property is also located in a spot that is going to collect a lot of sediment, including the softball-sized rocks now scattered across Riverside Park's field, which limit the town's ability to mow it.

Nevertheless, "I think there is a compromise," Miller said, and "it might be signage." While calling the property a park implies it will be in pristine condition, Miller suggested the town put up signs saying something like "riparian growth in progress." That way, the property can still be enjoyed by the community but residents and visitors will understand that something scientific is also at work.

This is "an opportunity for education," Bleier said in agreement, suggesting that instead of a park, Riverside "could be the floodplain management zone with recreational opportunities."

"That's not a bad idea," Cunningham said.

If the board decides to take that route, it clarified that the town's upkeep of the Route 100 property would likely include only very light maintenance such as removing the rocks strewn across the field in order to mow it on a semi-regular basis, as well as smoothing out some of the divots.

"I'm not looking for a manicured lawn," Groom said. "But I'm also not looking for soccer-ball-size boulders instead of soccer balls."

Already, "There are a lot of community members who are starting to ask, 'what can I do?'" Mays said, explaining that there is the potential to harness that energy into some sort of volunteer stewardship group.

Moving forward, the board invites any interested parties to meet at the Route 100 property to do a walk-through of the property at a special meeting scheduled for Tuesday, July 29, at 6 p.m. at Riverside Park. Barbeque grills and dogs are welcome at Riverside Park.

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