Residents balk at Salem flood mitigation project

DUSTIN LUCA/Staff PhotoBrooks Street residents Margie and Dave Raymond, standing with area residents Kristin McInnes and Gary Gill, stand in a publicly managed garden and park space on Brooks Street that could be destroyed by the Rosie's Pond flood mitigation project currently getting bids from contractors.

SALEM — City officials are looking to upgrade a narrow berm along Brooks Street – a  $1.5 million project addressing flooding issues in the Jefferson Avenue area.

But the so-called Rosie's Pond project comes with another cost that has dozens of neighbors to the area up in arms: a small piece of paradise built and maintained by the neighborhood.

Officials held a meeting at the site Monday night, where the latest plans were met mostly with anger and confusion from those who live nearby.

But before the meeting, Brooks Street resident David Raymond walked through the proposed construction site, pointing out a bench dedicated to a family member who passed away a few years ago. Trees at the site, including one providing shade for the bench, are slated for removal. The same can be said for a long, straight garden tended by residents of the neighborhood.

The entire area is 20 feet wide at most, but it stretches most of the length of the street. It separates Brooks Street from a small body of water connected to the Rosie's Pond water system.

"We've had some flooding," Raymond said. "'96 was the bad one, '06 was the last one. Then, in '08, they put the berm in."

The berm rises to the side of the street by about three to four feet above the pavement on Brooks Street. It was built in 2008 in response to the Mother's Day flooding in 2006, Raymond explained. 

Officials want to raise the berm by two more feet through the use of an interlocking wall, to a total height from the traditional "flood elevation level" of 15.5 feet. That's high enough to protect people throughout the area from the worst kind of flooding officials plan for.

Most of that flooding affects areas outside of Brooks Street.

The system throughout the area is "part of the whole South River flood mitigation project, work we've been working on for the past 15 years," said Dave Knowlton, director of the city's Public Works department. "We've always looked at that area, because we know the berm that were originally built have settled over time, have a lot of tree growth on them, and that doesn't promote a lot of flood protection."

But as part of the project, drainage upgrades must be made underneath most of the garden, the street side of the proposed berm wall. The berm must also be built in a specific area that would require the trees be taken down so they don't destroy the wall with their root systems.

Many along Brooks Street don't see the need for the project. After all, the flooding hasn't happened in more than a decade, and another decade before that.

"What we had in '06 was the last time, and they put this in in '08," Raymond said. "It hasn't happened since."

Others, however, have the opposite view. 

"People lost vehicles. They lost everything," said Fred Votta, who today lives in Peabody. "There were 73 affected households in 1996."

Back during the flooding in 1996, Votta lived on Jefferson Avenue. His property flooded to the point that waters reached his first floor, inundating his basement in the process.

Votta recalled handing family members to firefighters who came to his door in a boat. A typical household lost about $40,000 to the flooding once repairs to electrical and gas systems were totaled and vehicles were replaced, he explained.

Jefferson Avenue wasn't passable for three days. Some couldn't return for months, he explained.

"People basically had to start over," he said.

But for him, though he lives in another community now, the project is "progress."

"There are a lot of people that have passed, a lot that moved out. The people that still live here advocate for the neighborhood," Votta said. "Twenty-one years later, there is progress being made."

Neighbors didn't downplay the need for flooding upgrades at the meeting Monday night. Rather, many pushed for alternatives. 

Ward 7 City Councilor Steve Dibble, standing alongside residents and several council colleagues, made an impassioned plea for putting the wall alongside the water area, thus protecting the trees, garden and everything else the neighborhood cherishes.

Officials, including Mayor Kim Driscoll, emphasized the need to design such a project and address its costs. This all comes after City Hall already landed permits to build the designed project, have the grant ready to go and have contractors lining up and bidding to do the work.

"We want to preserve as many of the plantings as we can," Driscoll told residents, "but I think it's going to be hard."

Another alternative, passed by the City Council last week, requires that officials hear neighborhood concerns about "saving the trees on Brooks Street from being cut down." The order, filed by Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent, requires officials to find ways to save cobblestones, plantings, flower beds and more, and "address plans for restoring" all of those elements if they're up-ended by the construction.

"It's one of the most beautiful streets in the city, (one) that they've built," Dibble said at the City Council meeting. "We had nothing to do with it. They did it all with volunteers."

What happens next isn't yet known, but for some, there isn't much hope. That includes Raymond, who has maintained the street-side park with neighborhood help going back decades.

"The more they tell me," Raymond said, "the worse it gets." 

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or Follow him on Facebook at or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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