FARGO — The push to buy land and secure property rights to enable construction of the $2.75 billion Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion has intensified as letters to 550 property owners were sent to start negotiations.
The Metro Diversion Authority has budgeted $502 million for property acquisition, and is working with land agents to reach agreements with property owners in North Dakota and Minnesota. Officials are seeking to buy land needed for the 30-mile diversion channel as well as a 12-mile southern embankment to temporarily store floodwater.
They also seek legal permission in the form of flowage easements for the right to allow water to pond in an area upstream of a dam on the Red River, enabling a controlled release of water downstream through the diversion channel.
Some property owners, who have known for years that their land is within diversion construction zones, are eager to resolve the uncertainty that has clouded their lives.
“Some people are anxious to move forward sooner than later,” said Eric Dodds, program manager for Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, which is working with the Diversion Authority on the project.
“I don’t want to suggest that people are happy that their land is being purchased by the project,” he added. Still, he said, “Some people are ready to move on.”
In late December, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources granted a crucial permit for the project, which was modified to overcome objections, though the permit contains more than 50 conditions that must be met.
But the project, which has been authorized by Congress and has secured $750 million in federal funding as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of support from the state of North Dakota, still faces legal and regulatory hurdles.
“We felt it was now time to reach out to all of the impacted property owners,” Dodds said. “We’re getting a few calls already.”
Lawyers for the diversion will argue that a federal court order that halted diversion construction should be lifted, now that Minnesota has granted a key permit. The Minnesota towns of Wolverton and Comstock have filed administrative permit appeals, as has the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District.
The buyout offers fall into several categories.
Two groups of property owners are associated with the diversion channel, which will bypass the metro area and empty into the Red River near Georgetown, Minn. One group is south of Interstate 94, the other group is north of the interstate.
Another two groups are associated with the embankment, one in North Dakota and one in Minnesota.
Groups of upstream property owners, both in North Dakota and Minnesota, will be asked to grant flowage easements allowing water impoundment during severe floods. “However,” Dodds added, “if any want to sell their land outright, we would consider that.”
Structures in the upstream area also will be acquired, including close to 100 homes, although most of the structures are outbuildings, such as barns or sheds, he said.
When possible, buildings will be sold and moved. Otherwise, they will be demolished and sold for salvage value. “We’ve generally been putting that in the hands of the marketplace,” Dodds said.
Of the $502 million budgeted for land acquisition — 18 percent of the project’s estimated $2.75 billion cost — so far $179 million has been spent, leaving $323 million remaining, he said.
The vast majority of the 200-plus properties acquired so far have been by mutual agreement. Eminent domain proceedings started in five cases, but all but one were settled, Dodds said.
The buyout process begins with an independent appraisal from appraisers credentialed to work on federal projects.
“That forms the basis of the initial process,” Dodds said. Then, professional land agents hired by the Cass County Joint Water Resource District will work with the landowners to negotiate an agreement.
“They want to make sure the property owners are receiving as fair a deal as possible,” he said.
Mary Scherling, a Cass County commissioner and chairwoman of the Diversion Authority board, said in a recent letter to the editor in The Forum, “I understand that we are asking impacted property owners to sacrifice. We also hope that those who are impacted understand that we have an obligation to treat you fairly and properly compensate you for your impacts.
“With a project as important as this to the safety and way of life of our citizens, we must continue to move forward in a timely manner. Now is the time to move forward and acquire the land needed.”