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Homeowner stands ground: Fargo plans eminent domain to make way for levee

This home seen behind lift station construction Thursday, July 24, 2014, at Fourth Street and 12th Avenue South may soon face an eminent domain lawsuit after buyout negotiations have failed. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 2
This home seen Thursday, July 24, 2014, at Fourth Street and 12th Avenue South, Fargo, N.D., may soon face an eminent domain lawsuit after buyout negotiations have failed. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

FARGO – City officials here plan to seize a home to make way for a flood levee, using the city’s eminent domain powers.

It would be the first time Fargo has used eminent domain for flood control since before the flood of 1997, city officials said.

The two-story house at 1118 4th St. S. is the only one left on its block, right behind the Fourth Street levee. Fargo is working on fixing the levee because of unstable ground, and engineers say the dike needs to be moved toward the street.

Assistant City Attorney Nancy Morris said she met with the homeowner – Richard Quam – last week. The city made a final offer and he rejected it, she said.

The city began trying to buy the home in December 2012, first through the voluntary buyout program, Morris said.

“We are examining the next steps and it probably will be – there’s the potential for an eminent domain proceeding being commenced in the near future,” she said.

Eminent domain is the right of government to take private property for public benefit, as long as the owner is justly compensated.

Morris said she is working with litigation counsel and that within the next couple of weeks, eminent domain proceedings could be filed in Cass County District Court.

Quam, 55, said Friday that he’s still holding out for a better offer and is prepared to go to court if necessary. “I just don’t think I got a fair appraisal of (the house),” he said.

Quam, a construction contractor who lives alone, said that since moving into the two-bedroom, 1.5-bath house in 1999, he’s made improvements to the property, including recently building a two-car garage. He said the city’s offers have been an insult to his work.

It has been rare for Fargo to use eminent domain for flood control. Garylle Stewart, a longtime city attorney who first began working for Fargo in 1968, said Friday it would be the first time eminent domain has been used for flood control since before the 1997 flood. 

Levee unstable

The Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t recertify the Fourth Street levee unless it is fixed, and the city says Quam’s home is in the way.

If the levee is decertified, it would throw an estimated 190 nearby homeowners into the flood plain, forcing them to buy expensive flood insurance policies, said City Engineer April Walker.

The last time the levee was certified was in 1998. Walker said as part of the recertification process required by FEMA, the city told the federal agency the levee was stable. It had to run tests to prove it, but those tests found instability issues in the ground.

“So we redesigned (the levee) and moved it over, further away from the river,” she said.

Walker said the situation is unusual. FEMA has given Fargo an informal exception, she said, and allowed the city to move along with fixing the levee while also not requiring the nearby homeowners to purchase flood insurance.

If FEMA wanted to, it could put those roughly 190 nearby homeowners into the 100-year flood plain today and make them buy flood insurance, Walker said.

“We are very cognizant of not wanting to take a step backward in terms of what we do have certified,” she said.

The total anticipated cost for the Fourth Street levee relocation is $8.2 million. Crews are now digging up the levee just south of Quam’s home. That phase of the work is expected to be done in October, Walker said.

The next phase involves the levee from Quam’s house up to about Ninth Avenue. That’s expected to begin and be completed next year.

Multiple offers made

The city sent Quam a letter in February 2013 offering him a voluntary buyout of $98,780. Eminent domain became a possibility last August, Quam told The Forum in February.

Quam thought the offer was too low and asked for a reassessment. A final appraisal in January this year found the market value of the home to be $140,000.

According to a July 16 letter from Morris to Quam, Fargo’s final offer was $150,040 for the house, plus $5,000 for moving expenses and $22,500 for relocation assistance for a total of $177,540 in cash.

He also was offered $15,000 in special assessment credits, bumping the total package to $192,540, and given the opportunity to salvage items from the property at no charge.

“All told, the value of this settlement offer may well exceed $200,000,” Morris said in the letter. 

“In order to avoid the expense and delay of litigation, the city of Fargo is offering to you an amount it believes is more than what you are entitled to recover pursuant to eminent domain,” she wrote.

Quam rejected that offer last week, Morris said.

Once the process of eminent domain is started, Morris expects it to move fairly quickly. State law calls for a jury to be summoned in no less than eight days and no more than 30 days. She said Quam still has time to accept a buyout.

“We would be willing to continue negotiations with him at all times,” she said.

If eminent domain is used, Morris said the court will determine the value of the property through the course of the proceedings.

Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll contributed to this report.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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