Diversion officials planning for hardship cases

FARGO – Preparing for future buyouts, Diversion Authority officials are developing a plan to help rural residents who are already feeling a pinch from the project.

Engineers, consultants and local leaders began discussing Thursday various possibilities for a proposed hardship policy.

The draft starts to define what constitutes a “hardship” and how such cases would be handled by the authority in advance of the project’s planned construction. It would be one element of the Diversion Authority’s land acquisition plan, which is also still being drafted and due to be published in May.

Typically, hardship cases include severe health concerns, extreme financial hardships or safety issues – in addition to the inability to sell one’s property because of the proposed project, said Eric Dodds, a diversion consultant with Fargo-based AE2S.

A hardship acquisition plan should allow some homeowners to be bought out before construction and, possibly even, before the project is authorized.

It’s reserved for special circumstances, where the mere potential for the project has created problems for individual property owners. (In comparison, a general acquisition process for all other affected property owners could take up to 8 years to complete and won’t kick in at least until after the project is authorized by Congress and lands are needed for construction.)

In determining how to handle the unique cases, Diversion Authority staff and consultants are talking with civic leaders mostly in communities south of Fargo-Moorhead, where residents could be displaced because of excess water caused by the project.

Some homeowners there are already experiencing negative consequences even though the diversion is still being designed and likely won’t be authorized by Congress until at least 2013.

For instance, as many as 10 homeowners in Oxbow want to sell their homes but can’t, because banks are denying prospective buyers a mortgage for the properties due to the uncertainty of the town’s future, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said, relaying a recent conversation with Oxbow Mayor Jim Nyhof.

Diversion Authority officials won’t decide for  a while yet when they’ll move forward with acquiring properties determined to be facing a hardship – primarily because several studies are still underway in the hopes of minimizing the project’s impacts or finding solutions that could avoid buyout out whole communities.

Fargo Engineer Mark Bittner cautioned of a self-fulling prophecy if officials began acquiring properties before trying other feasible solutions.

“Once you start acquisition, it tends to snowball and you almost define your action then,” he said. “If you start leaving gaps in a neighborhood, it tends to fulfill itself and then you buy them all out.”

Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo advised staff and consultants to keep forging ahead on the specific hardship policy so it’s ready to go when needed -  but when that will be has yet to be determined.

Officials said they’re cognizant that rural residents want specific answers so they can plan ahead for the project, but they say time is needed to map out those answers.

“This is a dynamic process,” Walaker said. “We cannot proceed any faster with any decision until we have the information.”

Technical staff will work on more detailed recommendations for the hardship policy and report back to the authority’s Land Management Committee next month.

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