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 modular home near the new Minnewaukan school, shown Oct. 7, was the first house to go up in New Minnewaukan this fall. In addition to new homes, several homes are scheduled to be moved from the original townsite to the new location.
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.
Minnewaukan's new status creates opportunities
By JILL SCHRAMM
MINNEWAUKAN Mark Motis is optimistic about his community.
"I believe this town has a huge future. I don't think it's gotten to its potential yet," said Motis, a past Minnewaukan mayor and former council member.
The community's outlook wasn't so bright during the decades that the town shared in the rural decline occurring across the state or during the years when Devils Lake was creeping toward city limits. Now with a new school, a thriving recreation and tourism industry and a housing subdivision to draw people, things are looking up for Minnewaukan.
The city is encouraged, too, by a proposal from a developer to build a truck stop with gas station and convenience store on the east side of U.S. Highway 281 near town.
The biggest threat to the future is the home acquisition process occurring to mitigate against damage from further rising of Devils Lake.
Residents have the option to relocate their homes to the new subdivision, but those who simply sell out could decide to leave. Sherri Thompson, city auditor and flood project manager, said the city isn't anticipating a large exodus.
"For the most part, I think people want to stay. It has been their home for years. It's hard to let go," she said, adding that the development of New Minnewaukan was the council's response to that sentiment.
"Residents felt this was their home and if they can stay any possible way, that's what they wanted," she said.
Motis owns a home in the south end of Minnewaukan that is part of the buyout zone. At age 82, he said, he can no longer manage his large yard while waiting to relocate his house. He is moving to Devils Lake, but rather than sell to the city, he sold to a private buyer, who plans to leave the home in its current location. Motis said others in the neighborhood also aren't worried about their location and plan to stay.
Minnewaukan, founded in 1883, had a 2010 census of 224 residents, a 29.5 percent decline from 2000. Thompson estimated the population is not quite 200 today.
Minnewaukan registered 496 residents in the 1970 census, just before Motis arrived in 1976.
"This was the tidiest town around. The homes were all painted. The yards were mowed. The trees were trimmed," he said. "It was a very good-looking town. It had a swimming pool, and I had children. It looked like the place to be."
The town had a dentist, pharmacy, paint store, furniture store, lumber yard, three garages, two gas stations and the biggest hardware store between Grand Forks and Minot, he said.
The decline that began in the 1980s came with corresponding shrinkage in the business sector. However, a number of businesses remain, including a restaurant, two bars, bank, newspaper, insurance company, hair salon, law office, construction company and grain elevator. There's a bait shop, guides and lodging businesses that cater to tourism, along with government offices. The largest employers are the school and county. Minnewaukan is the Benson County seat.
Motis described Minnewaukan as a commuter community to Devils Lake. The town has potential to capitalize on its bedroom community status by attracting people who long for a rural lifestyle, he said.
"And if you like to hunt and fish," he added, "there's no better place in the state of North Dakota."
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.