Rural flood protection program under fire

A Towner rancher upset over appraisals in a rural flood protection program brought his complaint Tuesday to a legislative committee, which also heard from program administrators that the solution would require more state money.

“We are very frustrated, very disappointed with the program,” Vern Kongslie of Towner said of the Structure Acquisition, Relocation and Ringdike program in the Souris Basin. “They are not paying attention to the rural people’s needs.”

He said appraisals through the program have been inconsistent and unfair.

Speaking to the Water Topics Overview Committee in Minot, he said the program offered with state funds through the Souris River Joint Board offered him less than 38 percent of the cost to replace his house. He reluctantly accepted a payment with 50 to 60 percent depreciation on his corrals and out-buildings but rejected the offer on the home and buildings on the main farmstead.

His brother received a fair replacement cost offer on his property, but then it was depreciated by 70 percent, Kongslie added.

“He can’t afford to continue ranching if he’s only going to get 30 percent of the value of those buildings. How can he replace them and move out of the flood plain? And so now our parents’ farmstead is still sitting in the flood plain because they would not give us a fair offer, and I predict my brother won’t get a fair offer either and all those buildings will be in the flood plain,” he said.

Ryan Ackerman, administrator of the SRJB, said 165 residents live within the rural reaches of the river. StARR, a voluntary program, had about 75 landowners show initial interest in selling, relocating or ring diking their properties. Only 50 owners have chosen to participate so far. Another 10 still are considering the program. Appraisal offers were a factor for some who considered the program and chose not to participate, he said.

“So we recognize the system that we have isn’t perfect. We wish that we could make it better, but we don’t have the unlimited resources available to pay people in some cases what they want to be paid,” Ackerman said.

He explained SRJB uses a certified appraisal process, and landowners who disagree with the appraisal have recourse before an appeals committee.

Kongslie said finding another certified appraiser to challenge the StARR offer was impossible, and contractor quotes to document replacement costs weren’t accepted by the board.

In written remarks, Kongslie stated he compared other applicants’ appraisals to his.

“Most of them had large depreciations and many people I talked to had the same complaint we did but like many this probably was going to be the best deal available and many people accepted the offers or partial offers,” he wrote. “As far as I am concerned the STARR program is a failure because we still have our main farmstead buildings in the flood plain because we did not receive a fair offer.”

The only program participant receiving a generous replacement cost with minimal depreciation on his property was the SRJB chairman, he told the committee.

“And there’s nothing wrong there? It’s black and white. Whether we can prove it or not there needs to be something done. It’s not right,” said Kongslie, who asked for an investigation.

“I disagree with the assertion that our chairman has somehow received preferential treatment,” Ackerman told the committee. “I believe in both transparency and appropriate inquiry to maintain the integrity and legitimacy of the Souris River Joint Board. So I want to state that I would submit us to whatever type of inquiry or process is thought to be appropriate to resolve this question.”

However, the program at its present funding level won’t be able to help everybody, Ackerman said.

“That’s really what it boils down to is finding those resources. It’s also expending public funds in a manner that’s appropriate. We are very, very cautious about not spending money over appraisal value,” he said.

SRJB Chairman David Ashley told the committee the StARR program has spent just over half of its $12 million state appropriation so far. As it continues to work with landowners, the goal is to use remaining funds to complete the program by July 2019.

The committee also heard from Leland Goodman of Willow City about river bank erosion and the continued need to remove trees destroyed in the 2011 flood in rural areas. State involvement is required to address these issues that are too large for landowners to tackle alone, he said.

The committee took no immediate action on requests of rural residents, although Chairman Rep. Jim Schmidt said he would like to see the State Water Commission act on the matters.