A local business owner has added his voice to the small chorus of people saying entities negotiating over land for the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion are acting unethically or possibly even lying.
David Gust, who owns an aerial crop spraying company, presented his accusations about land and appraisal agents and the Cass County Water Resource District, the public entity buying land in the county for the Diversion, to the Cass County Commission Monday, Aug. 17.
It was the second round of appearances this month before the Commission that is tasked with ensuring the "process" in negotiating land purchases or right of ways is done following state law.
Commissioners are not supposed to be part of price negotiations or any other legal issues.
After more than two hours of discussions with property owners, commissioners on Monday approved all seven requests to take the next step in the process by advancing to "quick take eminent domain," although it was emphasized that negotiations would continue with landowners before any court action begins.
Gust was offered $30,580 for his grass landing strip in May 2019, but that was raised to $134,500 in September 2019.
Gust is seeking $1 million and said he spent more than $200,000 on purchasing the land for his air strip and shaping it with dirt.
He hasn't been using it and instead works out of the West Fargo Airport.
Eventually, though, Gust said he wants to use it and is concerned about the future of his business if he loses the grass landing strip or if changes are made at the West Fargo Airport. But he was most upset, he said, about the negotiations.
He believed the land agents weren't following the process and said they should be held accountable.
The in-person exchange, one of three before the commissioners on Monday, along with others two weeks ago, prompted Commissioner Rick Steen to ask if the land purchasing negotiations are working the way they should be.
Eric Dodds, a consultant who works on land acquisitions for the Diversion Authority and put together a land management team, said the commissioners are hearing about the "most difficult of the negotiations."
So far, he said, they have successfully negotiated deals on 380 parcels.
That should be looked at as an "overwhelming success," Dodds said.
He also pointed out that it's taxpayer dollars they are dealing with in settling purchases, so they have to be careful in reaching final figures.
Some deals are extremely difficult, Dodds said, as the parcels may have been in families for generations or may be part of a person's business plan.
It was also noted that some land agents have had guns pointed at them or baseball bats thrown at them.
Commissioner Ken Pawluk asked fellow Commissioner Duane Breitling, who attends water resource district meetings, if he has ever had concerns with how the negotiations were being handled.
"The answer is no," Breitling said.
"I think they lean over backwards to resolve values, and I don't see any personal bias against any landowners," he added.
Commission Chairman Chad Peterson said some people may have been overpaid, but they also need to examine cases such Gust's, who he said was in a unique situation.
Dodd said his team and land agents will keep talking with all of the remaining landowners with the goal of reaching settlements.
Even if cases seem to be moving toward court hearings, about 80% are settled before they get there, Breitling said. Of the nine scheduled to come before the commission Monday, two had been settled prior to the meeting, Dodds added.
Peterson said it's better to reach settlements than give all of the money to lawyers.
Commissioners will hear more disputed cases in the future, possibly as many as 50.
Finishing up the land purchases, which have been going on for almost a decade, is becoming more important as work on the diversion channel itself is scheduled to begin as soon as 2022, he said.
Workers are already building the Red River inlet structure near Horace — the gateway for water entering the diversion channel — and also on a Wild Rice River control structure near St. Benedict in Cass County.
The channel will run west of the metro area starting south of Fargo and back into the Red River about 16 miles north of Fargo near Georgetown, Minn.
Officials are striving to have the project ready by the spring of 2027 even as a dispute over a key permit for the project is pending before an administrative law judge in Minnesota. The permit is being challenged by upstream communities, including North Dakota’s Richland County and Minnesota’s Wilkin County.