FARGO — Terry Sauvageau of Horace said people don't realize the sacrifice and stress he, his wife and other landowners are going through as they are forced to sell their land for the Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion project.

Sauvageau, who lives southeast of Horace, believes they should get what they desire for the land needed for a 320-acre wetland construction project designed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The wetlands will replace other wetlands that will be lost to construction of the Diversion.

"It's ours, not yours. It's our property," Sauvageau told the Cass County Commission, which heard from eight landowners or their lawyers at a three-hour meeting on Monday, Oct. 18.

The Sauvageaus remain upset that they and the other landowners may have to go to court under eminent domain to settle on an agreement. They questioned the negotiation process they are going through with the Cass County Joint Water Resource District Board.

The five-member Water Board, which has been meeting regularly in the past year, is tasked with negotiating and settling issues such as land and easement prices with the help of a private company's land agents.

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Despite a cascade of financial and construction progress on the diversion project this past year, the complaints were evidence that the battle between developers and landowners — some of whom have had property in their families for generations — isn't over yet.

This time around, it was the emotional Sauvageau who along with his wife, Kristie, vehemently objected to what they were being offered for numerous pieces of their land in the Horace area. They also will be forced to sell their homestead and find a new place to live.

"I don't think people understand the sacrifice we are making," Sauvageau told the commissioners. "It's been very stressful."

Terry Sauvageau speaks against the Fargo-Moorhead diversion during an assessment meeting Tuesday, June 6, 2017, at the Fargodome.  Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Terry Sauvageau speaks against the Fargo-Moorhead diversion during an assessment meeting Tuesday, June 6, 2017, at the Fargodome. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The commissioners are not required to be involved in negotiations but according to state law must check to make sure they are done in good faith and that property owners aren't facing threats to sell their property.

Over the past few months, the commissioners unanimously voted that they trusted negotiations were being done in good faith and threats weren't being made each time they faced a "quick take" or eventual eminent domain case.

On Monday, the landowners and their lawyers complained that negotiations with the Water Board weren't going well.

Most objections were arguments that land values have skyrocketed with sales of nearby land much higher than prices they are being offered. Those offers are mostly based upon appraisals done a year ago.

Sauvageau insisted they aren't "asking for the moon."

"I think we can settle this," he said about the difference of about $3,000 to $4,000 per acre for some of their land.

Igor Lenzner, whose St. Cloud-based law firm has represented about 45 landowners involving 100 parcels in the diversion project, said the negotiations "process is failing us. It needs fixing. We have a chance to do it now."

Lenzner, who spoke for a few of the landowners at Monday's hearing, said the courts are getting clogged with cases that may go to eminent domain trials where a judge will give a final verdict on settlements.

Cass County Board Chairman Chad Peterson said he appreciated the Sauvageaus' sacrifice but took exception to the comment that Fargo residents who were bought out along the Red River received a "premium price."

Peterson said there were many there, too, who didn't want to sell and didn't get the price they wanted.

In another of the cases before the county board, Shirley Richards said the offer for their section of land near a commercial development in the Horace area was "extremely undervalued." She said they were only given one offer during a yearlong process.

Richards said they are asking for $32,000 an acre based on other nearby sales where developers are buying up some of the land, rather than the $15,000 per acre price offered by the Water Board.

She said they even offered a land trade for a nearby parcel, but Eric Dodds, a consultant who leads a private land agent team working on the project, said he thought that was going down a slippery slope.

Dodds said once "quick take" decisions are agreed to by the county board, a new appraisal will be done done that would likely reflect the higher prices caused by rapid growth in the Horace area. After the new appraisal, he said, negotiations would continue before the case would possibly go to court.

Eric Dodds, a consultant who is working on land acquisitions for the Diversion Authority, listens to speakers at the Cass County Commission meeting on Monday, August 4, 2020. David Samson / The Forum
Eric Dodds, a consultant who is working on land acquisitions for the Diversion Authority, listens to speakers at the Cass County Commission meeting on Monday, August 4, 2020. David Samson / The Forum

They have completed about 600 land transactions, Dodds said, adding he found it "hard to think (the negotiations) process is broken."

Jacob Gust, who is one of the managers on the Cass County Water Board and operated the successful Sheyenne River Diversion that protects West Fargo for 20 years, said he believes the joint board is carefully following the laws.

"I don't believe it to be true" that the Water Board is failing in the negotiations, he said after hearing the comments during the county board meeting via Zoom.

"We're very careful in following federal and state law," Gust said after the meeting.

He said he understands the frustration of landowners and that people don't want to sell.

"But it has to be done," he said, adding he believes the diversion should have been built 50 years ago to prevent flooding problems along the Red River.

Gust said they don't want to overpay for land, either, as it's taxpayer money they are using.

"It's a tough balance, to put it mildly," he said. "We're trying to be as fair as possible."

The area chosen for the new wetland is in the right spot, Gust said, as it will be against the southern embankment near north Horace and will hold water back in case of a major flood.

Unfortunately, he added, many of the residents being forced to sell their land were on the "dry side" a few years ago, but when the diversion switched to Plan B some plots of land were moved to the "wet side."

Overall, Gust said he thinks the board is doing the right thing when it comes to negotiations and the diversion itself, pointing to the success of the Sheyenne diversion that protects the West Fargo area.

The county board seemed to agree that they are headed in the right direction but hoped the negotiation process could be improved.

Peterson said he wished disagreements over the land prices could be settled before it reaches the County Board and then possibly heads to the courts.

Commissioner Rick Steen said he realized that the property owners losing their land "sucks for a lot of people. But we have to get this built."