Landowners concerned about receiving fair compensation in diversion project

HARWOOD, N.D. – With a new path guiding the northern portion of the Red River diversion project, dozens of affected landowners heard some of the first talk Monday night of a process they continue to dread: land acquisition.

At the bare minimum, the need to purchase private land for the project is a year away, but the step is one of many residents should expect as the F-M diversion project moves forward, Army Corps officials said during a community meeting.

Monday’s gathering here was meant to inform landowners of recent significant changes to the diversion’s proposed alignment.

But a fiery question-and-answer session quickly shifted the evening’s discussion to how affected residents would be compensated when their property is needed to ultimately build the 35-mile-long, half-mile wide project.

Affected landowners gather to hear about the proposed Red River diversion at a meeting Monday in Harwood. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Many of the affected landowners west of Fargo are farmers who make a living off land that the diversion is set to take over.

The Fifth Amendment requires the federal government to provide “just compensation” when taking private property for public use.

But some, like Harwood farmer Keith Monson, questioned how they can receive fair treatment when they will have to give up a source of their future income in the process.

“I’m losing a quarter section of land, and you’re going to offer me fair-market value,” Monson said. “But my income stream from that quarter section of land is gone forever. I want to know how that is going to be addressed.”

Unfortunately for many like Monson, federal law strictly limits how compensation is calculated for affected landowners, corps officials said.

Among those limitations, appraisals for land cannot take into consideration any negative or positive impacts that a public project might cause – including any presumed loss to future income, said John Albrecht, chief of the Army Corps’ real estate division in St. Paul.

In answering Monson, Albrecht said: “The only way it can be addressed is set by law. The process is what it is; we can’t do it any differently.”

However, Albrecht said, appraisals provide only a baseline for negotiations when it comes time for the Diversion Authority to acquire necessary land.

The Diversion Authority, not the Army Corps, is ultimately responsible for both acquiring the land and providing compensation to affected residents.

All discussions about land acquisitions might be premature, since the project is still undergoing an intensive design phase.

Whether land will actually be needed by next fall depends on whether Congress decides to both authorize and fund the project, corps Project Manager Terry Williams said.

At the earliest, that action could come next spring, assuming corps leaders sign off on the three-year feasibility study as expected this month.

But even then, there’s no guarantee how Congress might act, and in the mean time, there’s still more studying to be done on the ground, Williams said.

Because engineers shaved off nearly a mile of the diversion in a revised alignment released last week, Army Corps officials need to go back and perform routine surveys on the affected land to ensure it’s suitable for the project.

Those surveys will be conducted next spring, along with other work on the diversion channel and the project’s staging area south of Fargo.

Williams also cautioned that the revised alignment is subject to change, depending on the results of further technical and study work engineers conduct.