Schoharie County again asks feds to pay to build replica of Blenheim bridge

Sunday, January 5, 2014
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The historic Blenheim Covered Bridge, which was destroyed by floodwaters in 2011.
The historic Blenheim Covered Bridge, which was destroyed by floodwaters in 2011.

— Schoharie County is making another pitch to FEMA in hopes of replacing the historic Blenheim Covered Bridge.

Washed away by the Schoharie Creek during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the national historic landmark was initially classified as an artifact and rejected for disaster recovery funding. But the county in an appeal argued the bridge was akin to a pier used for community gatherings and therefore eligible for funding.

FEMA late this summer agreed to provide money — roughly $1.8 million — for the county to build a gazebo or other meeting spot.

But after discussions and input from the town of Blenheim, which considers the bridge a community icon, the county submitted a different proposal: Rebuild the bridge where it was and elevate it to avoid future floods.

The proposal, now in FEMA’s hands, estimates the cost of a replica at $8.7 million.

County flood recovery coordinator William Cherry said he’s not optimistic FEMA will approve the project.

“As recovery coordinator I’m going to try to do everything I can to do what the board wants and what the people of the county want,” said Cherry, who is also the county treasurer. “I am not optimistic that FEMA is going to agree to that, there’s so many hurdles in the way.”

The state Historic Preservation Office would have to approve the project, Cherry said, and that office typically doesn’t condone replicas, he said.

“It’s either the real historic structure, or it’s not.”

The state Department of Transportation is considered an important stakeholder as well.

The DOT owns the Route 30 bridge just downstream of where the Blenheim Covered Bridge stood. The newer Route 30 bridge withstood the force of the Blenheim Bridge smashing into it during the 2011 disaster, but DOT may oppose locating a replica in the same spot due to the risks.

Also standing in the path to a new bridge are regulators including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Conservation — both of which regulate construction near water, Cherry said. “A huge part of the flood plain regulations say you don’t rebuild something in the flood plain if a practical alternative exists,” he said.

Despite the potential hurdles, it isn’t yet clear what FEMA may decide, because the agency is currently suggesting the county rebuild its public safety facility in the same spot where it has been flooded several times.

Cherry said he believes the county, regardless of FEMA’s decision on the replacement bridge idea, will still be eligible for the initial $1.8 million in funding the agency approved for the loss of the bridge.

There’s no timetable for when the county can expect to hear back from FEMA.

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