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Published April 13 2012

Feeling trapped by diversion, Oxbow couple hopes for way out

OXBOW, N.D. – George Scilley can’t enjoy his five-tier, split-level home here as much as he used to in his younger years.

At a chipper 78 years old, the retired Army chaplain deals with a variety of ailments, some from age and others as a result of his service in combat zones.

His disabilities require Scilley to use an oxygen tank to help him breathe, and he’s virtually restricted to the lowest levels of the home he and his wife, Dorothy, have lived in for nearly 30 years.

Dorothy and George Scilley love their home and their life in Oxbow.

But because of George’s condition, they know it’s time to move – as soon as possible.

“I don’t have a lot of choice,” Scilley said. “The toughest part of the whole business is, I’ve always been a fiercely independent guy, and there’s so many things I can’t do right now. I’m very limited.”

The Scilleys want to move to a one-level home in Fargo, which would be closer to George’s doctors and could accommodate his physical handicap.

But there’s a problem: They can’t move without leaving their home in Oxbow vacant.

The proposed Red River diversion project hovers like a foreboding, black cloud over this town of 305, where residents, like the Scilleys, can’t sell their homes.

Engineers’ plans call for the entire city of Oxbow to be bought out in order to mitigate a proposed dam feature that would hold back water south of the F-M diversion channel.

Residents who have tried to sell their homes in this bedroom community don’t get any attention from prospective buyers because mortgage lenders won’t appraise the properties given the uncertainty of the pending diversion plans.

After seeing neighbors who have had homes on the market for a couple of years without a nibble, the Scilleys haven’t yet tried to put their home up for sale, but they need a way out.

A new hardship policy approved Thursday by the Diversion Authority could give the Scilleys that.

The policy allows affected residents with severe health cases, such as the Scilleys, to qualify for early buyouts before the Red River diversion is authorized by Congress.

“We really feel powerless and kind of trapped in a lot of ways,” George Scilley said. “It’s probably time to move on. … We just don’t know where we’re going to go.”

“Nothing out here will sell,” Dorothy Scilley added. “So what do we do – just leave and leave it vacant?”

George Scilley’s military career had sent him away from his boyhood home near modern-day Oxbow, but he and Dorothy moved back in 1983, after George retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel.

With its picturesque golf course, family-friendly nature and the promise of life out of a flood plain, Oxbow was a prime choice for the couple to spend their years in retirement.

“It’s like heaven on earth out here,” Dorothy Scilley said, her eyes lighting up as she talks about her love for the community.

“To destroy it is a crime,” she added, “an absolute crime.”

During his years as an Army chaplain, George Scilley served on various tours around the world – six years in Europe, one year in Korea, one year in Vietnam – and he eventually spent time working in the Pentagon.

But one danger he thought he escaped during the wars remains with him. Part of his disability stems from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Because of that, the Veterans Administration classifies Scilley as 100 percent medically disabled, a certification that should qualify him for the Diversion Authority’s hardship policy.

Oxbow Mayor Jim Nyhof had been lobbying Fargo-Moorhead officials to adopt such a policy for months, citing the Scilleys as a prime example of the need in his community.

“We have real economic issues and hardship,” Nyhof said. “There’s people who just need to be addressed, and that’s the priority, and we got that.”

Nyhof also called the hardship policy a double-edged sword.

It’s almost like a concession that there’s no chance to save his town, despite Fargo-Moorhead leaders’ renewed efforts to study options that could keep Oxbow intact.

“We have a lot of vacant homes, and I don’t know that they will be filled,” Nyhof said. “We’ll slowly start losing parts of the town, and it’s not good.”

For residents like the Scilleys, the hardship policy offers a chance to move out of the limbo they’ve been living in since the inception of the diversion project three years ago.

“There’s a half-dozen old gray-heads like us here. How do we get out of this fix?” George Scilley asked.

The approved hardship policy applies to areas that will be subject to buyouts once the diversion is authorized and construction begins.

That includes areas within the diversion footprint and areas in the upstream storage area where proposed water depths exceed 3 feet.

Under the policy, residents who can prove a serious health condition could apply to receive an early buyout.

Each application will be weighed by a Hardship Review Committee set up by members of the Diversion Authority.

If approved, applicants will then be put on an early buyout list, but buyouts will be offered only when the Diversion Authority has the funding.

That’s a detail officials plan to sort out once they determine how much of a need there is for hardship cases, Authority Co-Chairman Darrell Vanyo said.

Applications for the hardship program are being accepted at the Cass County Auditor’s Office.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541