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Cass greenway progress slow: County has purchased only 10 of proposed 500 farmland acres

It's slow going for Cass County's plan to buy 500 acres of farmland along the Red and Wild Rice rivers to reduce future flooding. So far, the county has purchased 10 acres. "We haven't made a great deal of progress," said County Engineer Keith Be...

It's slow going for Cass County's plan to buy 500 acres of farmland along the Red and Wild Rice rivers to reduce future flooding.

So far, the county has purchased 10 acres.

"We haven't made a great deal of progress," said County Engineer Keith Berndt, who's helping oversee the project.

The county has a $2.2 million federal grant, received after the 1997 flood, to buy land along the two rivers. Eligible land is close enough to Fargo to be prime development land and close enough to the river to be at high risk of flooding.

The county has been working for more than a year to buy land.

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Why the lack of progress?

"Good question," said Irv Rustad, executive director of Fargo-based Lake Agassiz Regional Council and the flood buyout administrator.

Part of the answer is that federal restrictions on the grant money have slowed and complicated the process, he said.

For instance, the federal government initially expected the county to buy only the rights to develop the land, rather than the land itself, he said.

Landowners had little interest in selling those rights, he said.

Later, the government agreed that its money could be spent to buy land rather than development rights. But the maximum purchase price per acre allowed by the government has been too low to interest most potential sellers, Rustad said.

Another factor, Berndt said, is that Cass County is trying to use the $2.2 million wisely by focusing on land near Fargo instead of more-distant property that might not be developed for many years.

Nor is the county pressuring landowners to sell, he said.

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"It's all voluntarily. We haven't twisted any arms," Berndt said.

He's said he's optimistic the project ultimately will be successful.

Despite the project's slow pace, it still makes sense to buy undeveloped land at risk of flooding, said County Commissioner John Meyer.

"I want us to be pro-active. Let's buy the land before it gets developed. It's a lot smarter to buy it now than when there's five or six $250,000 homes on it," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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