BARRE – Three Hilltop Avenue homes – two of them occupied just days ago – may now be off limits forever.
City Manager Steve Mackenzie delivered that sobering news to city councilors during a Tuesday night meeting that was dominated by discussion of the fall-out of last week’s flooding.
Though low-lying areas were hammered when the Stevens Branch and its tributaries breached their banks during a torrential downpour that began last Thursday evening, Barre’s upper elevations weren’t spared, according to Mackenzie, who said Hilltop Avenue homes owned by Brett Acebo, Carol Garland, and Bill and Cynthia Duprey, posed a continuing safety risk.
“As tragic as it sounds it’s extremely unlikely that they will ever be allowed back into the houses to live,” Mackenzie said.
Mackenzie reached that conclusion after consulting with state Geologist Larry Becker and before a geo-technical engineer was scheduled to visit the three Hilltop Avenue homes today.
According to Mackenzie, a team led by Becker concluded that while the hill behind the three homes was not an imminent threat, it was by no means stable.
“There’s no question that bank is continuing to move and shift, but they concluded they are not concerned there will be a major slide (at this time),” Mackenzie said.
For that reason, Mackenzie said owners of two of three homes on Kirk Street, as well as a tenant of an apartment in that neighborhood located just off Ayers Street at the base of the hill, were allowed to return to their home Tuesday afternoon for the first time since they were evacuated on Sunday.
However, Mackenzie said the owner of the home closest to the toe of the slope hadn’t yet been given permission to return to his home and a commercial garage located across the narrow street was similarly off limits.
“There is evidence that there is continuing movement and it’s an unsafe situation,” he said, noting firefighters’ decision to evacuate the three homes at the top of the hill on Sunday would probably stand, though it is unclear how that process will play out.
Assuming the homes are insured and the insurance companies agree with the city’s threat assessment, they could cut checks to homeowners and call it a day. Mayor Thomas Lauzon said that would be the cleanest option though there is not guarantee it will play out that way.
It is unclear what, if anything, the geo-technical engineer who was scheduled to visit the scene Wednesday might find to alter a tentative decision that triggered a church-led, Facebook-fueled effort to move additional items from the homes that were occupied, until Sunday, by the Dupreys and Acebo.
According to Mackenzie, the engineer’s visit is primarily designed to determine whether it is safe to allow the last of the Kirk Street residents back in his home and will likely have little bearing on the city’s decision that the three homes up the hill are no longer safe to occupy.
Despite that determination several people reportedly entered two of the three condemned homes in an effort to help the families secure belongings that they left behind on Sunday.
City officials chose to ignore their own orders during what was later described as a kind-hearted, but somewhat chaotic attempt to help the owners of structurally sound homes that were built on the now-shifting sands of a heavily wooded hillside.
However, Mayor Thomas Lauzon said going forward the rules will be rigidly enforced and police will be instructed to arrest anyone caught on the other side of the yellow tape that cordons of the three homes located on the U-shaped street.
“The caution tape is not advisory, it’s an order,” he said.
Mackenzie said the street, which has seen a substantial amount of traffic since the homes were condemned on Sunday has temporarily been closed to through traffic at the residents’ request.
According to Mackenzie, the geo-technical engineer is scheduled to return to Barre on Friday to assess to similar erosion problems that forced the evacuation of a four-unit apartment on West Patterson Street until further notice on Monday, and a landslide that has emergency personnel monitoring a three-unit apartment house on Foster Street that has not yet been evacuated.
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