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Erik Burgess, Published April 07 2013

35 Cass County homeowners still waiting for post-2009 buyout

FARGO - Steve Syrdal couldn’t move away from the flood plain even if he wanted. And he does want to move away. Very badly.

Syrdal and his wife have been begging for a buyout of their home on the flood-prone Chrisan Boulevard just south of Fargo since the summer of 2008, when the city of Fargo first asked if they would be interested in being acquired.

Since then, no actual offers have been made by the city or Cass County despite that Syrdal has signed papers several times indicating his willingness to be bought out.

Only 79 homes have been acquired by the county since the record flood of 2009, when the Red River crested at 40.84 feet.

Including Syrdal’s, 35 homes have been waiting on the county’s buyout list for four years while the county waits for millions in federal dollars to be approved.

Meanwhile, the cities of Fargo and Moorhead have been gobbling up homes in the flood plain since that flood of record. Fargo has spent about $32.5 million on 100 home buyouts, and Moorhead has spent $50 million on 217 homes.

That only makes the waiting that much worse for homeowners like Syrdal, who simply want the chance to move on.

“Our homes have been rendered all but unsellable because of the specter, the threat of buyout,” he said. “What the county needs to do, in my terribly humble opinion, is make a decision: ‘Yes, we’re going to buy you out,’ or, ‘No, we’re not.’ ”

‘I’ve been disgusted’

After the flood of 2011, Cass County submitted 53 homes to be bought out via a Hazard Mitigation Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which can be applied for after a presidential disaster has been declared. Many of the homes are just south of Fargo on Forest River Road, River Drive and Chrisan.

Richard Johnson, 75, has been hoping to escape the headache and heartache of the flood plain since 2009, when his basement turned into an indoor swimming pool and he and his wife, Helen, decided fighting floods wasn’t worth the scenic views.

But after the waters receded from his home just off Forest River Road, the county came and made him an offer he had no choice but to refuse – $30,000 under the taxable value. It forced the Johnsons to stay in their home through two more floods in 2010 and 2011, and now they’re facing another this year.

“I’ve been disgusted about it. Everybody has,” he said. “I mean, if they would’ve given a decent rate, I think there probably wouldn’t have been anybody left down here.”

Those 53 homes, including the Johnsons’ and Syrdals’, may get a chance at a buyout soon. The FEMA grant is in the final stages of being approved, and County Planner Tim Solberg says that could happen this month. Appraisals would then happen, followed by offers, which tend to be 110 percent of taxable value.

“We would take it right now because we can’t keep putting up with this flood business,” Johnson said.

The goal is to remove the homes that accept buyouts to let the land return to its natural state as flood plain, Solberg said.

County officials chose to put 90 percent of funds from a half-cent sales tax passed in 2011 into savings for the $1.8 billion F-M Diversion Project, what they see as long-term protection for the county, and only 10 percent toward other flood mitigation projects, amounting to about $1 million per year.

Only one home since 2009 has been acquired by the county using that local sales tax, Solberg said.

“We made a commitment to the voters that the sales tax dollars – 90 percent of them were going toward the diversion,” said Keith Berndt, county administrator.

The other 10 percent is usually not enough to make many home buyouts, Berndt said, so instead the county uses it for other projects for which federal funding is not readily available, like improving lift stations, ring dikes and culverts.

“If there’s an opportunity to secure federal funding (for buyouts) we would prefer to do that rather than burn up local tax dollars,” Berndt said.

‘Extremely difficult’

Some younger homeowners might try to stick it out until the diversion is built, which would lower water levels through the metro area.

But the uncertainty of that project – which has yet to be funded by the federal government – only compounds the problems these homeowners face.

“It’s extremely difficult for everybody out here,” said Richard Thomas, 63, who lives on River Drive South. “We don’t know how long it will be before a diversion might be built.”

Utilizing Aqua Dams, Thomas has been able to keep his home dry.

The same is true for John Miller, who says he and his wife, Jo Ann, have been able to protect their Orchard Park Drive home fairly well. Both Miller and Thomas have been on the county’s buyout list since 2009.

Still, at least having a buyout on the table would be another option for them when dealing with the “worrisome and annoying” annual flooding, John Miller said.

“It’s such a beautiful and desirable area to live in,” he said. “But at the same time, for the greater good, if there were a reasonable buyout offer, I’m sure we’d certainly seriously consider it.”

For older homeowners like Johnson, who is on oxygen and a medicine regimen, the possibility of being trapped in a flooded home is not a risk he can afford to take. Every flood season, the emotional stressors return, compounding the physical duress of fighting a flood.

“It’s hard. You don’t get no sleep,” Johnson said. “We’re getting too old. We can’t do this.”

There is an unfortunate misconception, Syrdal says, that he and his neighbors have received offers but turned them down.

“That is absolutely not the case,” he said. “No appraisals, no offers. Not once. Not ever.”

And while Fargo and Moorhead continue to build up dikes, some believe it pushes water back south. Syrdal has been told to expect 6 more inches of water than they normally receive at every river stage because of increased protection downstream.

“That additional 6 inches of water, if it’s the last 6 inches of your dike, it’s a big deal,” he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of flood-prone homes are leaving the riverside in either city, an option he only wishes he could explore.

“It’s the only home my daughter’s ever known. It will be very, very sad for us to leave,” Syrdal said. “But at this stage in my life, it’s even sadder still to live in a house that you can’t sell.”


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