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Finding common ground as brook scours walls, yards

CORNWALL — “As bad as it’s ever been.” More than one person used almost those exact words to describe the recent destruction along Mill Brook where it courses through the center of West Cornwall. Attention has focused on the effects of Tropical Storm Irene in August, and the amazingly fast replacement of the Lower River Road bridge at the confluence of the brook and the Housatonic River. But just upstream, at the Mill Brook, backyards have been assaulted. It is a combination of a steady and large volume of water, a fast downhill sweep, man-made structures and a large number of rocks washed down to be redeposited that redirect the natural flow.“When the water is high, you can hear the rocks crashing down the brook,” said Michael Trapp, whose property was the focus of emergency repair work completed this month by the town. He has lived there and operated his antiques business there for 21 years; never in that time has he seen such destruction. Trapp split with the town the cost of a geological survey, hired his own engineer and had improvements made to his property, including the planting of five hemlock trees to help stabilize his yard. His is the first house on the left on River Road, just over the bridge, and it is a target for the brook as it now ricochets off man-made embankments. During the most recent flooding, the brook shot over Trapp’s retaining walls and washed out some of his land, a staircase and stone walls in his terraced yard.The problem can be summed up, he said, as, “You can’t fight Mother Nature.”West Cornwall (originally settled as Hart’s Bridge) gained its permanent name and saw it first wave of vitality when the first mill was built in 1750. Mill Brook, as it would soon be named, provided constant and abundant water power. It drains Cream Hill Lake and the 5.6 acre Cream Hill watershed before dropping about 700 feet in its last couple of miles.The brook flows naturally alongside Route 128 until it is channeled under the road at Smith Place (across from the post office.) Work was done within the last couple of years on concrete retaining walls along the deep channel. As soon as it hits the north side of the road, the brook flows under a narrow railroad trestle and the one-lane River Road bridge. It exits the bridge culvert to make an immediate, nearly 90-degree northerly turn. It sweeps around a sheer wall supporting the back deck of a home before slamming into Trapp’s property. The water is often sent careening back across to the southern bank, where it has also been destructive. Bank work was also done at Mary Gilroy’s home.Flooding is far from unusual under these conditions. So what made last August’s storm one that will go down in history books?There are lots of explanations and comparisons. The reason for the Lower River Road destruction was that the Housatonic did not flood first, as usual, and create a backwater that slowed the brook. The flood of 1955 destroyed some buildings above River Road. But like the flood of 1938, the brook washed out of its banks and headed straight down Route 128 into the Housatonic. At one time, there was a dam at River Road, which likely helped stabilize the banks during flooding.The Covered Bridge has always been spared, by the way. Both Trapp and First Selectman Gordon Ridgway described a well-studied situation. The boulders brought in to stabilize the banks on Trapp’s property are considered to be a temporary fix. It is not the first time the town placed boulders there. All the parties say they will continue to work together. “I’m satisfied with what has been done for now. I feel like I won’t lose everything. My real concern is for the next flood, or the spring thaw,” Trapp said. “Whether we have a lot of snow or not, the brook will flood in the spring, and I believe we will have more problems. The stream needs to be looked at from bridge to bridge. North of the [River Road] bridge has been the same for 100 years. What has changed is south of there. The brook is no longer within its natural banks. Water wants to go straight, not zigzag around. The effect has been like a kid with his thumb on a garden hose.”Trapp said, for his part, he will submit plans for a project that will require a much more complicated permitting process than what was just approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Cornwall Inland Wetlands Commission.Consideration of “overlapping interests” will be key to moving forward on solutions, Ridgway said. “What you do on one bank affects the other, and there are multiple property owners involved. We will work on a more extensive plan in the spring.”He noted that, as with the bridge replacement project, neighbors have been very cooperative and he expects that to continue.Trapp said West Cornwall is a great place to live and he and his neighbors intend to protect it. “Mill Brook may have its problems, but it also gives the village much of its charm.”

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