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Erik Burgess, Published May 22 2013

Riverfront homeowners bristle at sandbag comments from Moorhead mayor, council

MOORHEAD – When Mayor Mark Voxland said earlier this week that the city should consider not delivering sandbags during less-serious flood events, Bob Swenson was listening.

And when Voxland said the city has spent $87 million on buyouts and floodwalls and that it’s time for the 87 riverfront homeowners – those that haven’t accepted a buyout – to “pony up,” Swenson got angry.

“It’s almost like we’re being isolated by the city now, that somehow those on the river are enemies of the city of Moorhead because we haven’t sold out to the city,” Swenson said. “It’s really hard for us to take because we’ve lived here for a long time.”

The City Council decided Monday in a non-voting meeting that it will consider not delivering sandbags to riverfront homeowners in the future until the river hits 42.5 feet, the level at which the city’s levees are built.

The city has spent $486,000 so far on flood fighting this year. An estimated $420,000 of that cost, or 86 percent, was related to sandbags, said City Manager Michael Redlinger.

This makes sandbagging an attractive expense for the city to cut, especially because citywide protection to 42.5 feet is nearly complete and fewer sandbags will be needed during future floods.

The council is scheduled to discuss the matter further on Tuesday.

Not delivering sandbags would not totally eliminate seasonal flood costs, Voxland warned, but it would be a good start.

“We’re always going to have to do some things, but certainly we saw this year, it’ll be a pretty minor cost if we don’t have to spend money on sandbags,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said it’ll be a few years before Fargo can even consider leaving the sandbag business.

“We reduced it from 3 million sandbags in ’97 and 2009 to 100,000 this year,” he said. “To me, that’s a tremendous success story. But that’s our goal.”

Sandbags not needed?

Doing away with sandbag delivery is not a novel idea.

Paying for your own bags was the norm in Moorhead until 2009, when city leaders decided an organized effort was needed to defend against that spring’s eventual record Red River crest of 40.84 feet. The practice has continued since then.

But those bags have not always been welcomed, or even needed, say some residents left along the river.

In 2010 and 2011, Barbara Schramm said the city delivered bags to her home on Rivershore Drive in south Moorhead and told her to put them on top of her privately constructed backyard levee, which is at about 42 feet.

“So we put them up, and they didn’t get wet,” she said. “Then we were responsible for the removal, and that was very difficult.”

In 1997, Swenson and his wife, Cindy, paid about $2,000 for their own sandbags. They spent about the same amount on sand for the flood of 2009 before the city showed up with truckloads of bags.

“None of us rely on the city for sandbags,” Swenson said, speaking for his home and the five others nearby on Rivershore Drive.

City engineering data show that 53 of the 87 homes left on the river will need sandbags if the river is headed to 41 feet. Twenty-five of the 87 homes require sandbagging at about 42 feet, and nine homes are generally OK until floodwaters are greater than 42 feet.

Private levees

While private levees may be structurally sound, they usually cannot be certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, certification that would allow the city to shrink its floodplain and lower the number of homes that need flood insurance, said City Engineer Bob Zimmerman.

Voxland said that’s why he doesn’t believe private levees are protecting the city, especially if they are built in the floodway, making them susceptible to sloughing.

“We can’t hope and guarantee to the rest of our citizens that that’s going to hold,” Voxland said. “I don’t see them as protecting the city. I see them as trying to protect their home.”

Schramm, who has lived on Rivershore Drive since 2007 in a home her father built in the mid-1970s, said the fact that she and her husband have put roughly $20,000 into their private dike is proof they have “ponied up” to protect the city.

“I grew up in the town, and this town is very important,” Schramm said. “And I don’t think the people should say we don’t care about them because we always have.”

Zimmerman said “in most cases” residents along the river do not have private levees.

“For those people that have built a dike like that, they don’t need sandbags so there really isn’t an issue for them” if the city stops delivering bags, he said.

Eminent domain

Moorhead plans to use state funds to extend buyout offers this year to 44 of the 87 homes still on the river. All of the 44 have expressed continued interest in a buyout, Zimmerman said.

The elevations of those 44 homes range from 33 to 43 feet, and 42 of them would require sandbagging by the time the river hit 42 feet, Zimmerman said.

Since 2009, the city has acquired more than 200 homes.

Swenson said when city leaders speak poorly of riverfront homeowners, it only makes the pressure to accept a buyout worse because it creates animosity between those who live along the river and those who don’t.

“They’re certainly using some pretty powerful things to influence citizens that they better play ball” and accept a buyout, Swenson said of the city.

Voxland said that after Monday’s meeting, he heard several positive comments about the idea of not delivering sandbags.

A comment he said he’s heard a few times: “That’s exactly what we have to do. That’s why I’m paying these specials, so we don’t have to sandbag anymore.”

Swenson said he was listening intently to Monday night’s council meeting, especially when Councilman Mark Altenburg asked the city attorney about eminent domain.

“I hate to ask this question, but I will,” Altenburg said Monday. “Is there a possibility of using eminent domain to remove those properties and put in the permanent protection that we need?”

“The short answer is yes, you could do that,” City Attorney John Shockley replied.

But Shockley added that there would be a “significant layer of expense” for the city in relocation costs, which the city has not had to provide yet because the program so far has been voluntary.

Swenson said if the city wants a certifiable levee so badly, they should just use eminent domain, and put an end to the offensive comments about riverside residents.

“They can take my house and give me the rights I have as a citizen under eminent domain,” Swenson said. “I can live with that.”

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