Grand Forks County Commission holds off on shouldering buyout costs for one rural home

Adam Kurtz, Grand Forks Herald
·3 min read

May 5—Grand Forks County Commission members stopped short of fully funding a homeowner buyout program that would affect one particular residence in the county.

Commissioners, at their regularly scheduled meeting on May 4, authorized County Engineer Nick West to spend up to $6,000 to conduct a pair of necessary appraisals for a home located in rural Manvel that abuts the Turtle River. The owner of the home has expressed interest in a recently approved Federal Emergency Management Agency buyout program, but only if he can get full market value for the property. The FEMA program offers a 75% buyout option, with the owner taking on the remaining 25% for the required demolition of the property. West asked commissioners for $93,000 to shoulder the complete cost of the buyout and subsequent demolition of the property.

The purpose of the program is to buy out homeowners of areas that are repeatedly hit by flooding, and thus reduce the financial impact on homeowners and local governments. Under the program, bought-out homes revert to county ownership, and the properties may never be built on again and must revert to a natural state.

The issue with the rural Manvel property, a five-acre spread, is that it is the only residence served by a county-owned bridge. The bridge has flooded multiple times in recent years, and the homeowner could only access the property by boat. West asked for the funding to help purchase and demolish the house, which he said is a cost-saving measure.

"To me that is not in the best interest of the county," West said of letting the owner sell the house on the open market. "If we could eliminate that residence, we could eliminate the bridge and that would save us a lot of money in the long run."

There are only a handful of other homes in the county that have expressed interest in the FEMA program, and commissioners declined to cover the homeowner's portion of the required costs. West said doing so in this case could save the county $500,000 in bridge-related costs.

According to State's Attorney Haley Wamstad, the county is on firm footing to single out one home, while not offering the same expense to others, as long as doing so is not "arbitrary or capricious." Still, commissioners decided to authorize the appraisals so they have a better understanding of how much they would have to pay, should they later decide to cover the Manvel homeowner's share of the cost.

"I guess I would be grudgingly willing to go along, although I do think the river was there before he bought the place," said Commissioner David Engen.

In other news, commissioners:

Signed off on letting a part-time employee of County Emergency Manager Kari Goetz submit a smartphone application to the Google Play and Apple stores. The application is an emergency preparedness platform for Grand Forks County that would allow residents, for example, to locate emergency shelters anywhere in the county. The application was designed by UND senior Gunner Engkvist.

Tabled a request to approve a July street dance sponsored by the Beehive Bar, in Reynolds, N.D. Commissioners will revisit the application once Reynolds' mayor has OK'd it.

Heard a report from Becky Ault, director of Grand Forks' Public Safety Answering Point, the emergency dispatchers for the county. Ault told commissioners she has lost a few employees, one to retirement and others to different jobs. Ault said she may need to hire new employees in the future, but a few retired dispatchers have temporarily come out of retirement to lend a hand.

The number of emergency calls last year increased to 94,847, up from 91,714 in 2019.

Ault also informed commissioners that the State Interoperable Radio Network will be going online soon. The network allows law enforcement officers to communicate with each other through radios over great distances, for example, from Grand Forks to Bismarck. The program will allow law enforcement to stop using the more expensive radios currently in use.