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Fargo’s growth limits will be defined by metro flood-control project’s protective footprint

At the current rate of development, Fargo will have space to accommodate growth for 40 to 50 years. City officials will be examining the land development code with an eye to managing growth with geographical limits imposed by the diversion project.

Crushed snow and an expanse of open land in the foreground of a smattering of houses.
Newly built homes are pictured in South Fargo on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion will use a 30-mile channel and three gated structures placed within a 20-mile embankment to divert flows from the Red River during extreme floods.

The massive flood project will not only keep the metro area dry — it will also shape growth by spurring development inside its protective area, helping to define the future boundaries of Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo.

At Fargo’s current rate of development, land available to the city within the diversion’s protected area likely will allow a few more decades of growth, said Arlette Preston, the Fargo city commissioner whose portfolio includes city planning.

“We’re going to be landlocked probably in about 40 or 50 years, so we have to be very intentional about how we move out there,” she said. “That’s my biggest concern.”

City leaders have been so focused on overcoming legal and financial hurdles to get the $3.2 billion flood-control project built that they have spent comparatively little time on talking about the project’s implications for growth and development, Preston said.

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“It’s going to have a big impact on development and development patterns in the future,” she said.

Besides planning that is mindful that available land is limited by the diversion, officials must be careful to ensure development is orderly and the property tax base it generates can sustainably provide for its ongoing needs, Preston said.

With financial sustainability in mind, city planners and commissioners must carefully scrutinize proposed housing developments, she said.

“The city is getting requests for building these out,” Preston said. “We have to be very careful about that.”

Financially, the city has been able to rely on growth expanding the city’s tax base, but that won’t be assured once the city has developed all available land, she said.

The frame of a house in the snow.
A home under construction is seen on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, in South Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

A consultant, Baker Tilley, is conducting a study of the costs of development that will be a valuable planning tool for city officials. Once that study is available and has been fully digested, it can help as the city redrafts its land use code.

Revising the land use code will be a lengthy process — likely to take several years — and will include public input, Preston said.

By creating a protected area, land available for future development will become limited, and therefore more valuable, she said.

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“The diversion is going to increase land costs,” she said. “That is going to drive higher density for sure.”

Because land will be more expensive, developers will turn to higher density building, with more people living per square mile, she said.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said development has become more dense over the years, as lot sizes have decreased for single-family homes. Lots once were often 80 feet wide, then 60 feet and now often are running 30 to 40 feet, he said.

“Affordability is driving some of that,” Mahoney said, adding that smaller lot sizes result in denser development.

Mahoney agrees with Preston that the city has to be careful in planning future development, taking affordability and financial sustainability of maintaining public services into consideration. “We really have to be very thoughtful,” he said.

In mature neighborhoods in north Fargo, developers have encountered resistance from residents when proposing to tear down three or four single-family homes and replace them with apartment complexes, Mahoney said.

Public dialogue will be important in revamping the city’s land use policies. “What does the public actually want?” he said, adding that the upcoming discussions on the city’s land code will be one forum.

An open expanse of dirt and prairie in the foreground of a few large apartment buildings.
Apartment buildings in South Fargo are seen on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022.
Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

Proposed “smart growth” measures have failed to gain much traction in the past, Preston said, but the growth limitations that will be imposed by the diversion might give the issue added impetus.

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Some have expressed concerns that a large retention pond being built on Fargo’s southern fringe, dubbed “Lake Fargo,” will prompt premature growth that would create pressure for the city to extend costly services not supported by adequate development, Preston said.

In approving developments, the city has examined the costs of building streets, water and sewer services but hasn’t considered ongoing service costs, which also include street maintenance, snow removal and garbage collection, she said.

“That has not been included in the formula,” she said, adding that officials hope the Baker Tilley study will provide that capability.

The diversion is about 35% finished, with completion expected by late 2026, in time to be able to protect against flooding beginning in the spring of 2027.

Homebuilders are hoping certain requirements can be eased or lifted for building a home on land that will come out of the 100-year floodplain once the diversion is completed and certified.

In Fargo, houses built within the 100-year floodplain must have flood-proofed basements and fill must be brought in to raise the house above flood elevation — requirements Mahoney said can add $10,000 to $20,000, depending upon the size of the house.

“We’ve seen development has moved outside the metro area,” said David Reid, president of the Home Builders Association of Fargo-Moorhead and president of Radiant Homes. “We’re hopeful that these restrictions can come off, maybe even before the diversion is finished.”

A study by the National Home Builders Association found that every $1,000 increase in the cost of a home prices 200 consumers out of the market. “So every thousand dollars makes a big difference,” Reid said.

The requirements are partly dictated by flood insurance standards imposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so it’s not clear how much authority the city has to relax the requirements for building in the floodplain, Preston said.

The requirement to build up was imposed by the city, so that could be examined by the city, she said. Until the diversion is completed, however, the property would remain within the floodplain.

Mahoney said he is open to exploring what can be done about the requirements. “That’s a discussion I’ve invited the homebuilders to have,” he said. “Is there any way we can do anything different?”

One possibility, the mayor said, is to see if FEMA would remap Fargo’s floodplain while the diversion is being built, a process that could lead to lifting the requirements sooner. “Once it’s done, it’s done,” Mahoney said. “You should have people protected.”

Since the record 2009 flood, the disaster that spurred the diversion, Fargo has built about 25 miles of floodwalls and levees, city engineer Nathan Boerboom said. That leaves less than three-quarters of a mile to complete.

“So, significant progress,” he said. Moorhead has, and Fargo soon will have, permanent flood protection to allow a 37-foot flood on the Red River, the level that would flow through the cities when the diversion operates during extreme floods. That will happen on average once every 20 years, engineers estimate.

Even with the floodplain building requirements, Fargo has seen robust homebuilding activity, with about 350 homes built last year, leading the metro area, Mahoney said, adding, “We’re seeing continued growth.”

Although Fargo has seen “consistent growth” to the south, that will increase once the diversion is completed, Boerboom said. “It’s going to provide additional growth, no question about it.”

Moorhead, which is generally on higher ground than Fargo, has ample room for growth in areas already protected by levees, said Tom Trowbridge, assistant city engineer.

“The diversion itself doesn’t necessarily change the development interest we have in Moorhead,” he said. Further in the future, the diversion would enable Moorhead to expand beyond areas already protected.

“That’s a ways out yet,” Trowbridge said.

The diversion will allow West Fargo, which is less prone to flooding than Fargo, the potential to annex additional land, although there are no current conversations about that, Mayor Bernie Dardis said.

At the current rate of growth, "We'll probably build out in three years" beyond current city limits, he said.

Higher density, including infill, is part of the city's comprehensive plan but is a sensitive subject in established neighborhoods, Dardis said.

"That's always a challenge," he said.

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Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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