Floodplain project benefits Gaysville

The White River Partnership (WRP) has conserved 9 acres of active floodplain along 1,780 feet of the White River in Gaysville in partnership with the Vermont River Conservancy, Vermont River Management Program, High Meadows Fund, and a private landowner.

Gaysville is a small village located in the town of Stockbridge. Consisting of a cluster of homes along Route 107 and River Road, the Belcher Public Library, the Gaysville Post Office, and a steel truss bridge across the White River, you might not notice this hamlet if you drive between Bethel and Stockbridge on your way to Killington or the Green Mountain National Forest.

But Gaysville hasn’t always been easy to miss.

According to the Town of Stockbridge website, “In 1786 Elias Keyes established a grist mill and later a saw mill at “The Narrows”, later known as Gaysville, so named for its founders Daniel and Jeremiah Gay. Gaysville flourished as a manufacturing center, powered by the waters of the White River. A button shop, sawmills, grist mills, schools, churches, several general stores, a woolen mill, snowshoe shop, and many homes were at one time located at Gaysville.”

However Vermont’s most devastating flood event – the 1927 flood – changed Gaysville profoundly.

“The waters ripped through the valleys of Stockbridge, taking with them bridges, dams, sawmills, homes, factories, businesses, and the railroad. The book Floodtide of 1927 reports some thirty buildings gone, with many more rendered useless in Gaysville alone…. Due to the devastation of the 1927 flood, and a changing economy, …the hamlet of Gaysville [was] never rebuilt to [its] former glory.”

Flood waters from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 also had major impacts in the town of Stockbridge. The town’s Hazard Mitigation Plan states that Tropical Storm Irene “destroy[ed] numerous properties and wip[ed] out large swathes of roadway and other infrastructure, most notable Route 107 leading to Bethel.”

In Gaysville a privately-owned campground, which occupied 20-acres of low-lying land along the south bank of the White River, sustained heavy damages. As a result the town worked with FEMA, the state, and other partners to “buyout” the property, by purchasing it from the private landowners; removing the damaged buildings and infrastructure; and restoring the land as open space.

Located immediately downstream from the campground, the privately-owned WRP project site was also flooded during Tropical Storm Irene. But unlike the campground, the 9-acre parcel was undeveloped.

According to WRP Executive Director Mary Russ, “Irene flood waters came and went without damaging any structures, highlighting the need to keep the property undeveloped to accommodate future flooding.”

So the WRP reached out to the landowner. “When the landowner expressed an interest in protecting the undeveloped property and making the land available for public access, we raised funds to work with the Vermont River Conservancy (VRC) to implement a river corridor easement project” says Russ.

The river corridor easement prohibits future development; allows the river to flood and move around; and protects the mature riparian forest along 1,780 feet of the river in perpetuity while allowing certain land uses – like recreational access – to continue within the 9-acre project area.

The landowner received a one-time payment as compensation for conserving the land. The Vermont Ecosystem Restoration Program and High Meadows Fund provided funding for the project.

The easement project complements the buyout project upstream; both projects prohibit development in this active floodplain, which will minimize future flood damages in Gaysville.

But the conservation projects also enhance another community benefit.

According to Russ, “Gaysville has been a recreation destination for many years: during certain water levels, paddlers come to canoe or kayak a technical section of river just upstream of the bridge; and swimmers and fishermen know that the waters are cold and clean and filled with fish.”

Now 29 acres downstream of the bridge are publicly-accessible and the former Gaysville Campground site is part of the White River Water Trail, an emerging network of 40+ designated public access sites along the river. And a group of Gaysville community members has formed a committee to design and implement site improvements at the campground property to ensure safe, 4-season access to residents and visitors alike.

Working with partners to conserve active floodplains along the White River is one important way the WRP accomplishes its mission: bringing people together to improve the long-term health of the White River and its watershed. Since 2008 the WRP has worked with the state, VRC, Vermont Land Trust, funders, and 15 landowners to complete 10 floodplain conservation projects, conserving 157.5 acres on river-front properties in Braintree, Granville, Hancock, Randolph, Rochester, Royalton, and Stockbridge.