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Holdout homeowners: Buyouts for flood protection since '09 have sometimes hit hurdles

As part of flood protection efforts, a contractor plans to move three homes in the Copperfield Court neighborhood along a drainage ditch that runs through south Fargo. The homes have already been lifted off their foundations. One other home in the neighborhood has been demolished, while one remains standing. Barry Amundson / The Forum

FARGO — Since the record-breaking 2009 flood — and even before — the emotional process of buying homes in flood danger zones has gone fairly smoothly, according to two of the city engineers deeply involved in the work.

However, there have certainly been some stumbling blocks along the way, with some buyout cases lasting more than four years and two going to the courtroom in eminent domain jury trials.

Both trials weren't even for homes along the Red River, but rather along a drainage ditch that carves its way through south Fargo.

One was a high-profile case involving Gary and Sue Cavett, who fought to keep their home at 4449 Oakcreek Drive, arguing that a levee should be constructed behind their property or that sandbagging could be deployed rather than having their home bought out. During a Fargo City Commission meeting before the trial, neighbors in the development called Oakcreek said they wanted the home out.

After a three-year struggle and failed negotiations, the Cavett case went to a five-day trial in June 2018, with hundreds of exhibits entered and even Mayor Tim Mahoney and Nathan Boerboom, a city engineer, called to testify.

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The Cavett home had been valued at $675,000 in an original city appraisal, but the jury awarded the couple instead $1.1 million, according to court documents. The couple also was reimbursed for attorney fees and expert witness costs.

Numerous calls to Gary Cavett, who's moved to another home in the city with his wife, weren't returned.

The other eminent domain trial flew largely under the radar, as Karen Wieland, upset with city officials and the appraisal of her home, took her case to a jury in December 2018. She had been living at 4033 Copperfield Court along troublesome Drain 27, and the city had an original appraisal of $725,000.

Court records show the jury awarded her instead $850,000. Wieland, who has still not completely settled the case, said she was advised by her lawyer not to talk about her case.

Two lawyers who were in court on the opposite sides, Jonathan Garaas for the two defendants and Jane Dynes for the city, didn't return phone calls.

Other cases have reached the point of eminent domain, too, but they were all settled in negotiations before going to court. Several others who were either holdouts against buyouts in the past or are facing buyouts didn't return repeated phone calls this week.

However, the two city engineers from Fargo and Moorhead who have spent years working on buyouts said they have gone well in most cases since the 2009 flood.

In Fargo, Rob Hasey has dealt with buyouts since 2006. An example of a success story, he said, was on River Drive that runs along the Red River in south Fargo near University Drive South where there is only one property left to buy out of 30.

As for the upscale Cavett and Wieland neighborhoods, he said progress along Drain 27 has been made with the last home in the Oakcreek neighborhood demolished, and other homes in Wieland's neighborhood were either razed or moved, making room for a levee.

Across the river in Moorhead, Tom Trowbridge worried after the 2009 flood if anyone would agree to sell their Red River frontage homes. With high water again in 2010 and 2011, the city engineer said the job of buying property to improve flood protection became a whole lot easier.

"I think after three years of that, they got a little nervous about the river," he said.

Since that time, 263 homes have been purchased through voluntary acquisitions. In their place are levees and floodwalls, he said.

But the work isn't done. The city's revised flood mitigation plan calls for another 68, possibly up to 91, homes to be acquired.

One problem area is in north Moorhead in the Wall Street area.

Another one is Oakport, which was annexed by the city of Moorhead in 2015. While the risk of flooding remains, the situation there has improved somewhat with the buyout of 60 homes and with levee work done by the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, Trowbridge said.