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Patrick Springer, Published November 01 2010

Neighborhood vanishes: Flood buyouts claim all homes in Heritage Hills

Kolbjorn and Solvi Rommesmo moved to the Heritage Hills subdivision along the Red River south of Fargo because it was peaceful and close to nature.

Recently, it became even more peaceful, as their neighbors left, one by one, until the Rommesmos joined them, leaving last week.

Nature, in the form of the rampaging Red River, got too close, too often.

The subdivision, established in the mid-1980s, is vanishing as all of the homeowners have accepted voluntary flood buyouts. Cass County officials expect up to 38 homeowners will accept buyouts totaling

$11 million in the latest round.

“It was really nice,” Kolbjorn Rommesmo said of the two decades he lived at Heritage Hills. “We loved it out there.”

The 1997 flood came within 2 inches of spilling into the basement of their home, located on an oxbow near the river amid towering oak trees.

But the record 2009 flood, which filled their basement and covered their family room with half a foot of water, made country living less attractive.

Still, the Rommesmos, who are retired, repaired the flood damage and had planned to stay put.

Until this spring’s flood, which didn’t damage their home but again meant the only way they could get to their house was by boat. They decided it was time to say goodbye and accepted a buyout.

They’re still getting settled in their new home in south Fargo, where they feel much better protected against floods.

Heritage Hills, where 13 homes will have been removed since last year, is the most dramatic example of how the terrain in Cass County’s most flood-prone areas is being reshaped by flood buyouts.

The oldest part of the community of Oxbow, established in the 1970s, is disappearing through home buyouts.

The area, on the oxbow that gave the subdivision its name, is east of the Oxbow Country Club. The community, with a population of almost 500, will go from having about 130 homes to 120 with the latest round of buyouts, said Jim Nyhoff, Oxbow’s mayor.

“Our biggest concern as a city is our budget and our tax base,” he said, adding that the just-completed budget for next year included flood protection and street projects. “We feel pretty good.”

Any future development will be restricted to areas that are not so vulnerable to flooding, Nyhoff said, estimating there is room for another 15 or 20 home lots.

Although removal of a section of the town alters the face of Oxbow, “it puts us in a decidedly better position to protect from future floods,” the mayor said.

Sites where structures are removed in the flood buyout program are restored to street grade and replanted in native grasses or other plants.

Cass County Engineer Keith Berndt said the estimated 80 homes bought out in three rounds this year will make it much easier to defend rural subdivisions along the river from floods.

The homes in Heritage Hills, for example, could not be protected by emergency clay levees but had to be ring-diked with sandbags.

“It’s going to be a much better situation,” Berndt said. “Most of these homes couldn’t be defended,” he added, referring to all of the homes the county is buying for removal.

Irv Rustad, executive director of the Lake Agassiz Regional Council, is coordinating the buyouts for the county. So far, no homeowners have refused the county’s offer, which is based on two or three appraisals.

“There will be some neighborhoods that disappear, that’s for sure,” he said.

Once again, to defray costs the county plans an auction sale of the buyout structures, to be sold for relocation to another site or salvage.

Rustad hopes to have the auction in late winter or spring. Mike Montplaisir, Cass County auditor, said it looks as if the $3 million budgeted for the county’s share of the buyout program is on target.

“It looks a little bit like a war zone right now,” Rustad said of buyout neighborhoods. That will change once demolitions are complete and the landscapes have been restored, he said.

Kolbjorn Rommesmo wants to visit the quarter-acre site that had been home for so many years in Heritage Hills after it is restored to riparian habitat.

“We liked the area so much,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522