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Published May 24, 2009, 12:00 AM

Homeowners tempted by river’s allure

Deep blue skies and emerald green grass. The roar of a lawnmower met by the sweet counterpoint of birdsong.

By: Helmut Schmidt, INFORUM

Deep blue skies and emerald green grass. The roar of a lawnmower met by the sweet counterpoint of birdsong.

Life is good on Fargo’s Harwood Drive.

It’s hard to tell that this placid place, with its mix of upper-middle class homes and McMansions, was part of the front line in the flood fight. That is, until you see the Hesco sand barriers and half-destroyed terrace in front of a stately home, or 6-foot high clay dikes lining backyards.

Yes, the water’s gone, but a raft of questions remain.

  • Were city, township and county leaders somehow at fault for letting developers build homes in vulnerable areas?

  • Should people no longer be allowed to build along this Jekyll and Hyde of a river? Or, along the wooded county drains?

  • Should we all be certified insane if we forget this by next fall?

    The questions meld geology with psychology, and pit engineering and politics against the human longing for beauty.

Deb Johnson, 430 Harwood Drive, can speak to the allure of the Red.

In Fargo, a place of prairie at the bottom of an ancient glacial lake, it’s a deeply wooded backyard that slopes to the Red that is a rare beauty.

“Everything looks out into the backyard and that’s what I like,” she said of her home’s country vista and in-town address.

Losing its luster

Johnson and her husband did their homework before buying their place five years ago. Aerial photos from 1997 show the land was dry during that flood.

Now, Johnson’s backyard view is clay and sandbags.

Two miles to the southwest, Louise Karaz nurses her shoulder after surgery for a torn rotator cuff, the result of an accident caused by fatigue after hours of sandbagging.

Karaz, 2665 Meadow Creek Circle S., loves the wooded view from her backyard. But it has lost its luster.

Sandbags in her backyard were stacked 5 feet high, a few inches short of a hanging birdhouse. That’s how she ranks the floods since she and her family moved from their high and dry home in north Fargo in 1998.

The Meadow Creek area may not look it, but it and nearby subdivisions Timberline, Fox Run, Copperfield Court, Oak Creek, and Rose Creek saw intense sandbagging along a drain that noodles past scores of backyards until it debouches into Rose Coulee.

In 1997, the water had barely gotten into the yard, Karaz said.

Dreams and pressure

Two problems with building on the Red River: a collective forgetfulness, and pressure – sometimes intense – to develop, said Donald Schwert, a geology professor at North Dakota State University.

Despite the 1997 flood, Schwert said people regularly champion putting major projects such as a library or an arts center next to the river.

“That’s the last place you want to put these structures, unless something is done with the engineering upstream,” such as dams or a diversion, he said.

Schwert picked up a copy of a real estate magazine in March. In it, he saw several vacant lots for sale, north and south of Fargo, which he said were inundated.

Despite Cass County having what Schwert calls “visionary” rules restricting growth along the river, those rules have no effect on incorporated towns.

In some of those places, which he refused to name for publication, Schwert said “development is almost encouraged in areas that are highly prone to flooding, and in many cases, landsliding.”

Since 1997, Fargo officials bought out 100 homes, improved drains, and added pumps. The city’s protection rose from 31 feet to nearly 38 feet, City Engineer Mark Bittner said.

Still, Fargo had a tough flood fight this year.

“We relied too much on the expectation that the Southside Flood Control Project would be in place ahead of the next Big One. We thought we were just around the corner (from having it done), Bittner said.

Little choice on building

Even though some areas have been flood-prone over the past decade, Fargo officials said they had little choice but to allow development.

As long as developers’ plans meet federal flood plain rules, the land can be platted and developed.

“We experience this after every flood. People say, ‘Why do people want to build there? Why do you let them build there?’ Three months after the water goes down, you’ve got landowners, you’ve got developers, you’ve got people that want to build houses there,” City Administrator Pat Zavoral said.

In other cases, vulnerable areas in the city were built out or platted by 1997, Bittner said, such as the Harwood Drive and Hackberry Point areas.

Areas such as Timberline and Fox Run, which were hit with overland flooding in 1997 – enough so that dikes had to be raised on 25th Street South and south of Centennial Elementary School – were also platted.

“You have to allow the growth with the regulations we’ve got.” Zavoral said. “Property rights in North Dakota trump almost any governmental action.”

Fargo tried to call a moratorium on building in its southern extraterritorial area after the 1997 flood, city officials said.

All they got for that was a lawsuit because someone wanted to build homes near Wild Rice, Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

Moorhead, meanwhile has gotten cooperation from its developers, Mayor Mark Voxland and Assistant City Engineer Tom Trowbridge said.

Trowbridge said most development since 2003 has been built to higher flood plain rules suggested by the city.

Voxland said the city will protect its infrastructure by installing gates on all storm sewer outlets.

He also wants more protection required on homes with walkout basements.

“To have houses floodable after 35 (feet) over the last 20 years just doesn’t make sense anymore,” Voxland said.

Efforts stymied

Fargo’s efforts to put flood protection in place on its southside have been slowed, officials said.

Walaker said he doesn’t support building moratoriums. He wants a permanent flood solution.

“To shut down development to me has negative connotations,” Walaker said. “If we can get the southside flood project, we’re covered for 50 years.”

For Karaz, her beautiful view doesn’t balance out the worries of sandbagging.

“If there was going to be chronic flooding, I wouldn’t want to stay on this lot. Life is too short,” Karaz said. “I wouldn’t want to do this every few years. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583