By Kristen M. Daum
Questions about compensation and mitigation efforts are commonplace in
almost every discussion about the Red River diversion.
Metro-area residents naturally want to know how the project will directly affect them and what steps Fargo and Moorhead leaders will take to try and make them whole.
Many of the specific answers aren’t available yet, simply because the project isn’t far enough along to know such details.
In the interim, though, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers and the F-M Diversion Authority are trying to offer general information to help residents understand flood-control efforts as they develop.
“We are committed to minimizing impacts and pledge to treat those who are affected – even those who must be relocated – fairly, respectfully, and with just compensation,” said Daron Selvig, a spokesman for the Diversion Authority’s public outreach efforts.
Those generalities fail to provide peace of mind to the hundreds of residents south of the F-M area who fear how this flood protection project might disrupt or outright displace their livelihoods.
Some rural residents say they’re already seeing negative impacts from the proposed project because of what they call the “limbo period.”
For example, Oxbow City Council member Dan Zink said the city’s property values were “immediately in question” after the upstream staging elements were added to the project last year.
“This limbo period is understandable to a point; there will be a time period between project announcement and execution to allow for the necessary planning,” Zink said. “However, the longer this limbo period exists, the closer it comes to being not just a property taking, but actually taking without just compensation.”
To offset downstream impacts on the Red River that would reach into Canada, corps officials devised a plan to use 200,000 acre-feet of storage on rural land south of Fargo-Moorhead.
That area should work in conjunction with the diversion channel during times of high floods, but it could bring as much as 8 feet of extra water on rural land within the storage area.
Zink acknowledges that there’s no market data to back up the fears of alreadydiminished property values, because no resident-owned homes in Oxbow have been sold in the last year.
Regardless, concerns remain that residents south of the proposed channel might get the short end of the stick when the project is done – especially since specific mitigation procedures have yet to be determined.
“The longer this goes on without resolution, the more serious it becomes,” Zink said.
Federal regulations include guidelines on how to compensate residents affected by government projects.
But the rules also leave a lot of leeway for the local sponsors, who are ultimately charged with executing mitigation efforts and determining just compensation.
In this case, that responsibility falls to the Diversion Authority, the culmination of a jointoperating agreement between Fargo, Moorhead and other local governing boards.
Diversion Authority officials have yet to discuss in detail how buyouts or other compensation might be determined when the time comes.
But, as Selvig said, diversion officials maintain a goal to work with affected landowners on a fair resolution.
Affected residents commonly ask about the buyout process, which is presumed inevitable because many landowners will likely be displaced by the upstream storage area.
The corps stated in its final feasibility study this fall that “the exact timing of any buyouts, and whether buyouts will even be necessary, is unknown at this time.”
“Buyouts are contingent upon Congress authorizing and funding the project, (and) mitigation for the project cannot begin until the project has been authorized and funded,” the corps says.
That congressional process should start early next year, contingent upon final approval of the project by the corps later this month.
There’s no guarantee of a swift track through the bureaucracy of Capitol Hill, which only leaves more uncertainty for concerned residents.
Federal regulations also demand that each affected property be “appraised and assessed for impact,” the corps said.
“Each parcel is unique and distinctive and must have a determination made as to the most appropriate way to mitigate project effects and compensate the owner for damages,” the corps states.
Because the project is still being designed, the corps said it is “premature” to conduct detailed appraisals of affected properties.
Because of that, “it is not possible to give specific information on the options for each homeowner” who might qualify for compensation, the corps states in its final report.
Thousands of acres of farmland are included in the project’s footprint, so many rural residents are also concerned about their source of future income.
The corps said “earning potential is one of those aspects to be addressed in developing a fair market value.”
What that could mean remains unclear.
The government is required to pay no less than appraised market value for property it acquires for the F-M diversion project.
But “appraised market value” will be determined at the time the property is actually needed, not any time prior to that.
Depending on how quickly the project progresses, that might still be years away, which flames the concerns of upstream residents like Zink, who fear continually diminishing property values in the interim.
If their fears are true, it means affected residents might receive compensation later that is less than the amount they might receive if their property were acquired today.
Zink said that if fair compensation can’t be determined “in a reasonable time frame, then quite possibly the project is so seriously flawed that it should be scrapped.”
“There has to be a better alternative,” Zink said. “The process and rules for mitigation as defined by the federal process are horrid and could take decades to provide relief.”
“So it is up to the local sponsors, and we hold out little hope that homeowners south of the diversion will receive any priority in the process,” he added.
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