Darien first selectman candidates offer plans to address flooding

Photo of Katrina Koerting

DARIEN — Residents and business owners have had to deal first-hand with the devastation of flooding over the past few months.

And both candidates for First Selectman have proposed ways to handle excess rainwater for now and the future.

Republican candidate Monica McNally and Democratic candidate Tara Ochman agreed that the public needed to be better informed about the town’s plans and residents needed more help with cleanup. They vowed to make the Public Works department more effective and work on infrastructure upgrades. Both said the town’s flood mitigation plans need looked at and upgraded.

But while Ochman said she wanted to rely on better connections with state and federal agencies to craft joint projects and make smaller changes on the local level, McNally wanted to reestablish the flood mitigation strategy committee relying on residents with expertise to help create new plans, as well as address stormwater entering the sanitation system and encourage more open space, which would limit development.

“We can’t stop severe storms, but we can make smart decisions at the town level and invest in full-scale flood mitigation projects,” Ochman said. “Darien residents and businesses need our local government to act now.”

She said it’s time to review and update existing plans to mitigate flooding in town. The increasing severity of climate change wasn’t factored into the town’s studies that were completed in the past decade and she wants a new town study of climate-related storm risks to help better plan, she said.

A study completed by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments in 2016 determined that future flooding in Darien is “highly likely” with a similar likelihood of it being “extreme.”

“Properties that were labeled as being at-risk of flooding only in a ‘25-year storm’ have now been flooded multiple times in one summer,” she said. “It is time to dust off those plans, see if they are still applicable, make changes if necessary and forge the path forward.”

McNally agreed the town’s flood studies need to be revisited, but added that the town should reconvene the flood mitigation strategy committee which was in place about a decade ago. Current residents with expertise in the field and other stakeholders can volunteer for the reestablished committee and offer insight into how the town can protect itself from future flooding, she said.

“They came up with some really great suggestions,” she said of the earlier group, although not all of the projects could be done because several involved partnerships with the railroad, private property owners or the state Department of Transportation.

“This is something that should be added to the front burner for work right away,” McNally said.

McNally said her biggest priority to mitigate the effects of future storms is to continue Public Works’ efforts to limit the amount of water that can enter the pipes during storms to prevent backups. The process is currently in the first of several phases.

“My biggest concern with storms is the storm water going into our sanitation system and causing sewage backups,” she said.

Ochman said she wants to invest in infrastructure upgrades, especially for drainage culverts, underpasses and riverbanks most at risk of flooding. Other larger investments might be done as partnerships with the state or federal government — with state or federal funds to help cover costs.

She also wants the town to review agreements it has with residents over the rights-of-way for small water systems and drainage areas throughout Darien to ensure those conditions are being met. She wants to work with the Public Works Department to make sure there is a catch-basin cleaning schedule, discuss extending dump hours and opening the dump on Sundays after storms to help remove the debris around town.

“Annual cleanups and cleanouts can help mitigate issues before they become emergencies,” she said.

McNally’s plans for Public Works includes moving schedules to allow for neighborhood cleanups closer to when a storm happens.

She also said she wants to protect and expand open space in town, which would limit development and eliminate impermeable surfaces. Trees and other plants in open spaces could help absorb rain before it hits the streets, McNally said.

“It’s a good thing to do for the town and it’s ...good flood mitigation,” she said.

Both candidates said they want to improve communication before and after the storm.

“We may not be able to stop all flooding, but our town government must take the lead in making proper investments and working with residential and commercial property owners to mitigate the effects of severe storms,” Ochman said. “Darien is a coastal community. We need to be resilient and ready to meet the challenges before us.”

A public hearing to address the flooding and a chance to speak with local experts will be held Sept. 20.