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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published January 10 2012

Churchs Ferry, population 12, votes 5-2 not to dissolve

CHURCHS FERRY, N.D. – Threatened with flooding, this tiny city is not about to give up the ship.

Voters rejected by a 5-2 vote Tuesday a measure to dissolve the city’s incorporated status, according to unofficial election results.

The Ramsey County Commission will meet Friday as the county canvassing board to certify the election.

“Keeping the city designation is important to us,” Mayor Paul Christenson said Tuesday.

The special election was prompted by a petition filed this past fall that was signed by four of the town’s then-12 residents. The petitioners contended it would be cheaper to disband the city and get community services through Coulee Township or Ramsey County.

Churchs Ferry is not under water. Rather, it is being threatened by the growing Devils Lake, which has risen by about 32 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993. Mauvais Coulee, which feeds into Devils Lake, runs past the community. However, it has been spreading out for several years, swallowing roads and other infrastructure.

The community had a population of 457 in 1910, but had shrunken to 77 residents in 2000. A federal flood acquisition project that year resulted in its largest business, BTR Farmers Co-op Elevator, moving a few miles west to Leeds while most other residents accepted buyout offers and moved away, too.

Three local families rejected the acquisitions and stayed. Only two of them remain, while a few other households have come or gone since then.

The 2010 census put the population at 12.

Paul and Julie Christenson operate a vehicle repair business in town. Phillip and Donna Eli, who have lived in Churchs Ferry for about 30 years, operate a kennel, Water’s Edge Dog Boarding. All four make up the city council.

The petitioners included two members each of the Mawby and Sandberg families. The Mawbys have operated Gardendwellers Farm in Churchs Ferry for several years, leasing much of the property for gardens and greenhouses from the city.

Since the petition was filed in September, the Mawbys have moved away from Churchs Ferry, although they apparently maintain a business postal address here, according to the Phillip Eli.

The Sandbergs declined to comment after the election Tuesday night. Lorrie Sandberg said they were preparing a statement that would be released today.

The mayor said the special election has been difficult for the community.

“If you add it to the 15 years of flooding, the stress level’s right up there,” he said. “We’re trying to hang on to our town and what we like about living here. We’re sitting on an island. Nobody’s helped us. We’ve dug into our own pockets to keep what we have.”

The community lost its school about 20 years ago to a declining population, before the flooding began. But locals have organized reunions during several recent summers to bring former residents back.

“Losing the school was hard,” Christenson said. “Those of us who have called this home all our lives, everybody who has lived here, everybody who went to school here can still say this is a town and they have a community to come home to.”

Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald