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Erik Burgess, Published September 16 2012

Those who’ve yet to accept buyouts from city could keep Moorhead from shedding flood insurance needs

MOORHEAD – As devastating as the 2009 flood here was, city officials were astonished to discover it was only being labeled a “50-year event.”

“That really was a wakeup call,” Mayor Mark Voxland said.

Looking to lessen their dependence on emergency services and better protect the city, Moorhead began buying homes on the Red River and in their place constructing a $95 million snaking system of levees and pump stations designed to protect the city against 42½-foot floods.

Three years later, 206 homes along the river have been bought out by the city, 24 of them so far this year. The city’s list of houses it wants to buy up still has 61 residences on it.

The ultimate goal: If those 61 remaining buyout targets were acquired and the levees certified by FEMA, the city would have a virtually gapless flood wall and no one in Moorhead would need flood insurance, a $400 savings for the average home per year, City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said.

Current levee gaps created by missed buyouts shouldn’t affect the city’s protection abilities, Zimmerman said, but could prevent the city from getting the certification needed to shrink the flood plain.

“We could protect to that level (of 42½ feet) now with all of the work that’s been done; it’s just a matter of how many sandbags, how many miles of clay levee do you need to do that,” Zimmerman said.

Voluntary program

This generation of buyouts began after the 2009 flood, with the city looking to take damaged homes out of the flood plain and begin building an 11.6-mile permanent levee system.

Other unrelated buyouts were made in the 1990s following the record flood of 1997.

“The major goal of the buyouts process was an attempt to get out of the sandbag business,” Zimmerman said.

The city’s ultimate desire, Zimmerman said, is to have a levee system that’s “entirely connected,” made difficult by the 61 holdouts still living on the river.

The alternative is to continue using the emergency measures area residents are familiar with seeing in recent years, like sandbags, which cost the city money upfront that is not guaranteed to be reimbursed by emergency agencies later, Zimmerman said.

City officials insist today’s buyouts have been and always will be completely voluntary.

In cases of projects that serve a “public use,” such as flood protection, eminent domain – the seizing of private property by the city – could be used, City Attorney John Shockley said, but Moorhead has not considered going to court to force homeowners to sell.

“We have no intention of using eminent domain, and if people do not want to sell their house, we are not going to use that power,” Shockley said.

Voxland said eminent domain has not been necessary. After battling floods year after year, many residents were looking to leave the riverbanks.

“We really felt that people along the river wanted to get out of that, and we thought it was just a good time for us to be able to move forward to do buyouts,” Voxland said.

The city will wait until all projects are completed before seeking certification, a process that will cost tens of thousands of dollars, Zimmerman said.

“We’ll need to determine, if a project can’t be certified, how many properties are affected,” Zimmerman said.

Those 61 homes aside, the city is nearing the end of the process.

“We’re so close,” Voxland said, with about $10 million to $12 million in infrastructure spending left to go in 2013.

Special assessments

With increased flood protection come new taxes for some. Eight percent, or $760,000, of project funding is coming from special assessments.

Zimmerman said essentially all properties west of 20th Street have been specially assessed in the latest round.

“Those are properties that are served by sanitary sewers that would be at risk for that 42½-foot flood event,” Zimmerman said.

An average single-family property is looking at a onetime assessment of around $400, he said.

“I don’t like that,” homeowner Dennis Gullickson said. But he said the taxes are “a small price to pay for maybe sleeping a little bit better at night in the middle of a flood.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

Special assessments hearing on Sept. 24

A public hearing will be held Sept. 24 at Moorhead City Hall on special assessments levied on properties affected by the flood mitigation efforts. Fliers went out to those affected in early September detailing the tax. The average single-family property would be taxed around $400.