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Erik Burgess, Published May 14 2013

$10.6 million grant paves way for more than 50 Cass County flood buyouts

FARGO – Owners of more than 50 flood-prone homes in rural Cass County may soon get a reprieve from constant flooding after the county was awarded a

$10.6 million federal grant for buyouts.

Most of them have been waiting for a government buyout since 2009’s record flood, though the recently approved Federal Emergency Management Agency grant was applied for after the flooding in 2011.

The 53 homes expected to be bought out with the grant money are “top priorities” for the county, most of them on the banks of the Red and Wild Rice rivers, said County Administrator Keith Berndt.

“It’s very good news,” Berndt said. “That’s 50 less vulnerable homes out there.”

According to county documents, 35 of those homes have been on the county’s buyout list for four years. Steve Syrdal and his wife live in one of those homes on the flood-prone Chrisan Boulevard. He said he has been asked since 2008 if he would be interested in a buyout, but still to this day no appraisals or offers have been made.

“We’ve been down this path enough times that I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach,” Syrdal said Tuesday.

He said while a buyout makes sense economically, leaving his home of 30 years won’t be a cakewalk.

“To suggest that I’m excited about leaving that setting, and the only home I’ve ever owned, would be a misstatement,” he said. “We will have considerably mixed emotions over this.”

The homeowners up for a buyout all showed interest at one time, but the program is still voluntary up until an offer is made and accepted, Berndt said.

Now that funding has been approved, the county will appraise each house twice and use the average of those two appraisals as a buyout offer, said County Engineer Jason Benson.

Benson said that process will likely be done by early July, and that homeowners will be given 30 days after an agreed upon closing date to move out.

Benson said there might be a handful of homeowners who will reconsider being bought out, but he believes most of those on the list will accept an offer.

“In talking with some of the people, they’re hoping this is the last flood they have to fight,” Benson said, referring to this past spring.

Berndt said 11 of the homes approved for buyout with this grant would be in the “staging area” of the proposed $1.8 billion metro diversion project.

The 32,523-acre staging area would be flooded to store water during flood events larger than a 10-year event if the proposed diversion channel is authorized and built.

“Less homes we have to buy out for the diversion,” Berndt said.

The FEMA grant is expected to pay for 75 percent of the cost of the buyouts. The county will cover 7.5 percent using funds stored away in a hazard mitigation fund, Berndt said. The state will pick up the rest of the tab.

Berndt said FEMA’s “slow and methodical” approval process is likely why it took two years to OK the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding, which can be applied for after a presidential disaster has been declared, as was done in 2011.

Since the record flood of 2009, when the Red River hit 40.84 feet in Fargo, Cass County has acquired 79 flood-prone homes.

The city of Fargo has spent about $32.5 million on 100 home buyouts since 2009. Moorhead has spent $50 million on 217 homes.

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