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Erik Burgess, Published September 16 2012

Along Red, Dumpsters grow like weeds with more vacant buyout homes

MOORHEAD – Every night, Tamra Gullickson takes an evening stroll along the Red River here, and every night more and more of them appear.

“Like weeds,” her husband, Dennis, says.

Large brown Dumpsters sprout up in the unkempt yards of emptying riverfront homes as more homeowners accept city buyouts and leave the area.

“Where you used to see the chalk mark on the sidewalk where the kids do hopscotch, or the toys that you might have to walk around on the sidewalk … you’re not seeing that anymore,” Tamra Gullickson said. “The ones that greet me the most on the sidewalk are the turkeys.”

More than 200 homeowners have left the riverfront since 2009, their houses acquired by the city as a part of the massive ongoing flood mitigation projects designed to protect the city from a 42½-foot flood event.

“It’s sad,” Dennis Gullickson said. “It is progress, I guess, but it is sad to rein in a river, if you will. Dikes are built, and homes disappear.”

But some, come hell or high water, have elected to stay, and from each of the 61 homeowners who dug their heels into the muddy river banks and refused to leave, you’re likely to get 61 answers as to why.

‘A slice of heaven’

Lloyd Paulson doesn’t have many neighbors left, at least on his side of the street.

The 88-year-old retiree has been living at his Rivershore Drive South home for 32 years. Fourteen of his neighbors accepted buyouts and left after the 2009 flood, but Paulson, convinced his home is “a slice of heaven,” said no to the city’s offer.

“I just looked at it and laid it on the shelf, and that was it,” Paulson said. “I knew right away. I wasn’t going to leave here for anything.”

Paulson, like many others who still call the river home, has his own personal levee in his backyard. He’s spent more than $20,000 constructing a dike that links up to the city’s levee system.

His levee at 41 feet is three feet lower than the city’s, he says, to keep the view pristine.

“The reason we went to 41 is so I could see the river,” Paulson said. “Otherwise it’d be hiding behind a dike.”

Further north, Zenas Baer, a lawyer who has lived at his home for 11 years, agreed that the ambience of living near the wildlife is irreplaceable.

“I couldn’t see cashing out of this home just for the sake of moving to another home where I would be unhappy,” Baer said.

For Paulson, who lived in his home many years with his late wife, Beverly, who died in 2009, leaving just wasn’t an option.

“It’s home, and it’s where we spent a lot our life together and a lot of good memories here,” he said.

Offers were made

While some stayed for emotional reasons, for others, finances came into play.

For about the first 70 homes bought out after the 2009 flood, offers were made based on individual appraisals, said Bob Zimmerman, city engineer.

After that, the city developed a system to give homeowners 108 percent of the tax-assessed value of the property – a number set by the city annually for tax purposes. Zimmerman said the city began doing this to quicken the process.

“As the 2010 flood approached, we were looking to acquire a number of properties expeditiously,” Zimmerman said.

But some homeowners who decided to turn down the offer said they didn’t feel the price was fair.

The city, Tim and Amy O’Connor said, had recently devalued their home despite many new improvements they had made.

“The value they were going to give us for this house is not even close to what we’d have to have to buy a house similar,” said Tim O’Connor, who lives with his family on Third Street South. “The amount of money we put into the house and then the amount they devalued it, we couldn’t leave if we wanted to.”

Baer said the devaluing of homes “perturbed” him as well.

“In hindsight, I looked at it this and said these guys did this intentionally and deliberately to try and reduce the buyout price,” he said.

City officials maintain that as more geological information came in, the methods and reasons for acquiring homes have evolved. About 60 homes were devalued a year ago because of their elevation, said Peter Doll, manager of development services.

“We’re just trying to track the market,” Doll said. “If you’re on the river, elevation is relevant.”

Still others felt the offers given by the city were fair.

Tim Beaton, who lived on River Haven Road for 26 years before accepting a buyout in 2011, said he had his home appraised not too long before the buyout and the numbers were similar.

“When we looked at it, the 1.08 times our assessed value that came out so very, very close to what we had for an appraisal, and we saved Realtor fees,” Beaton said.

A new normal

Now, with homes gone and still going almost every day, neighbors agree the area has changed.

“So many of the homes aren’t being saved, and they’re gorgeous homes,” Amy O’Connor said. “Watching them be destroyed is just heartbreaking.”

But even though homes are moving out, new neighbors are still moving in – across the street, away from the river.

“We miss the people, but we still have a lot of good neighbors,” Paulson said.

Mayor Mark Voxland said the City Council has kept an attitude to maintain the character of the neighborhoods if at all possible, but protection of the city has been “far and away the No. 1 priority.”

And so as the Gullicksons, whose Second Street South home is out of the flood plain, continue their evening strolls, they see more and more lights going out for good.

“It’s upheaval, but in the long term I think most folks understand what’s trying to be accomplished here,” Dennis Gullickson said.

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