Old and new

MINNEWAUKAN The rising waters of Devils Lake haven’t engulfed the town of Minnewaukan but they have split the city.

The city created a new development where people in the potential path of the water can relocate their houses and other growth can occur. This New Minnewaukan is more than a mile north of the existing townsite, creating two cities in one.

New Minnewaukan, located on the west side of U.S. Highway 281, is home to a new $10 million school that opened last January. The school district fled its previous property when the lake began encroaching on the parking lot and invading the bus barn.

A 3,000-foot-long levee, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2011, surrounds the edge of town where the lake had threatened the old school, water tower and other city infrastructure.

Sherri Thompson, city auditor and flood project manager for Minnewaukan, said the levee was built as a temporary flood protection measure to allow time for property acquisitions and relocations to occur.

“Then they are pretty much telling us we are out of harm’s way so that levee is going to come down or it’s going to be breached,” she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hazard mitigation program has given the city until May 2015 to complete the relocation of homes.

There are nine homes at this time scheduled for relocation, including three school-owned teacherages, but the city doesn’t expect to see movement until spring. The school also is moving in two portables, one for a child-care center and another for a student weight room, Thompson said.

Homeowners can obtain assistance through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to relocate their houses. Residents still must purchase lots and extend water and sewer from the curb stop, but the grant pays for the move.

To develop New Minnewaukan, the city created 120 residential lots and additional commercial lots on land purchased from a local farmer. The city built roads, erected a water tower and installed sewer and water using federal hazard mitigation money and funds from the North Dakota Trust Land. The property should accommodate about 26 homes, Thompson said.

She said the city is selling 25-foot by 120-foot lots for $1,050 but has a minimum purchase of three lots to avoid under-development with small houses and no garages.

Among those showing interest in the lots have been retirees and non-residents who want to be close to the recreational opportunities in the area, Thompson said. The city sold 24 lots and expects five houses to go onto those properties. The first house is already in place and a second was to be moved yet this fall.

Meanwhile, the city is pursuing acquisition of homes that could be inundated should the lake reach its maximum elevation of 1,458 feet, at which point the lake would naturally drain.

The lake began rising in the early 1990s. The west end of the lake, once eight miles away, now laps against the edge of town.

The acquisition program includes 36 homeowners who have shown interest. Not all homeowners are opting to sell. Some might simply stay until the lake nears their doorstep or they lose water and sewer services. Depending on what the lake does in the future, they could have much or nothing to worry about.

Thompson said residents would like to think the lake has stabilized and that many of the homes considered at risk will survive in their present location even after a temporary levee is gone. The lake peaked in 2011 at 1,454.4 feet. Dry weather in 2012 and the operation of two lake outlets built to divert water into the Sheyenne River caused the lake to drop, and although the lake rose last spring, the level declined over the summer.

Of the 36 homeowners in the acquisition program, all but four homeowners still are awaiting offers.

Thompson said the city’s acquisition prices are based on appraisals, with a deduction of 7.5 percent to pay for the city’s match toward the federal and state acquisition grants. For each property, the city requires two appraisals that vary by no more than 15 percent, but in 90 percent of cases, appraisals have varied widely.

The need to reconcile appraisals has created difficult delays for residents who are waiting for buyouts to make decisions about their futures, Thompson said.

“It’s been stressful for a lot of people, just not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said.

A couple from Wisconsin was in Minnewaukan this past week to clear out the house that their family is selling to the city after owning the vacation property for about five years. Although they said they are fine with selling, they love the Minnewaukan area and plan to come back with their fifth-wheel camper.

Homes that the city acquires will be made available for purchase, but buyers would have only 30 days to move the structures.

Removing all the low-lying property, largely on the east and south ends of town, would leave the city with green space that can’t be built upon, nor can water and sewer service be provided to campers on the lake shore.

“If all 36 homes were to leave town, that would be a big loss,” Thompson said. “Every house that we lose, we lose that service and we depend on that monthly income.”

Minnewaukan residents pay an additional $15 a month on their water bills to support the flood protection efforts. The fee has been in place for two years.

“It gives us that cushion where we know we are going to have the money to pay back some of these loans,” Thompson said.

The City of Minnewaukan has been allocated nearly $12 million in state and federal support for its flood-related efforts in addition to putting about $1.25 million in local dollars into projects.

The largest funding share has been more than $6.2 million from FEMA’s hazard mitigation program. Other assistance has come from the federal Economic Development Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, North Dakota Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, North Dakota Disaster Relief Fund and other state funds.

Projects have included development of New Minnewaukan, sanitary sewer improvements, water improvements and a Main Street grade raise. The allocated funding includes money for additional relocations and acquisitions if needed.

“We are so grateful for the amount of grants that we found are available for us. Otherwise, there’s no way we could do this on our own,” Thompson said.

The city’s technical assistance on flood matters has come from Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson, the city’s engineers, and the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

Despite all the help for the city, school and homeowners, a gap remains for landlords who are considered to be operating businesses. Minnewaukan’s business district is on a knoll that makes up the part of town considered safe from a maximum lake elevation. But a number of apartments and tourist rentals are in the acquisition zone. They are not eligible to participate in the assistance programs.

Thompson said the town’s federally subsidized apartment complex is likely to continue operating as long as the lake stays away since financing for relocation fell through.

“They are hoping the water will not get much higher,” she said.