For flooded Minot homeowners still struggling to recover, buyout money from federal hazard mitigation funds could be a blessing.
For flooded homeowners who don't wish to sell or relocate, the mitigation money not only is unnecessary but the strings attached may seem onerous. Flood insurance requirements, restrictive building codes and residential lots that would forever be vacant are a few of the reasons for taking a pass on the federal money and on the expanded flood-plain designation that is required to get those dollars.
The Minot City Council meets Tuesday to discuss whether to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to enlarge Minot's flood plain to reflect an advisory base flood elevation of 9,600 cubic feet per second. The 9,600 cfs of river flow would represent the 100-year flood level, replacing the current 5,000 cfs.
Jill Schramm/MDN • A house in southeast Minot undergoes flood repairs Tuesday. The city lists the house as more than 50 percent damaged, making it eligible for a buyout if the city requests and FEMA approves a new flood elevation for Minot.
Jill Schramm/MDN • A flooded house in southeast Minot awaits repairs. A proposed new flood elevation would make the house eligible for buyout but also would result in stricter construction codes for building or rebuilding in the flood plain.
"Some people think it's just a given, and it's not," city finance director Cindy Hemphill said of the advisory elevations. "It's something for the city council to consider."
The city is looking at the advisory base flood elevation as a means to obtain hazard mitigation money to buy flooded homes from residents who have been unable to recover from the devastation of the flood. Homes with substantiated damage of 50 percent or more that lie within the proposed flood plain would be eligible for buyout. Any sales would be voluntary. Eminent domain will not be involved now or in the future, Hemphill said.
The level of interest by eligible homeowners in buyouts will be a major consideration of the council in deciding whether to seek the new flood elevation designation. The city has identified 422 residential properties and nine mobile home parks that it knows had documented 50 percent or greater damage.
How to make your opinion known
The Minot City Council will meet Tuesday at noon in City Hall to discuss the advisory base flood elevation.
People with questions about the proposal can contact city finance director Cindy Hemphill at 857-4784 or firstname.lastname@example.org; city engineer Lance Meyer at 857-4100 or email@example.com; or public information officer Mark Lyman at 630-1443 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Residents who would like to voice their opinion about the plan should contact their council representatives. Council members are Ward 1, Dave Lehner and Larry Frey; Ward 2, George Withus and Bob Miller; Ward 3, Dean Frantsvog and Jim Hatletlid; Ward 4, Amy Moen and Milt Miller; Ward 5, Scott Knudsvig and Tom Seymour; Ward 6, Mark Jantzer and Blake Krabseth; and Ward 7, Lisa Olson and Kevin Connole; and Mayor Curt Zimbelman. To locate one's ward or find contact information for council members, visit (www.minotnd.org) or contact City Hall at 857-4750.
Should the council agree to pursue the new elevations, the city would send letters to homeowners to gauge their interest in a buyout. Homeowners would have little time to respond since the entire progress of compiling the information and getting it to FEMA must be done by Jan. 10, Hemphill said.
The rush is necessary to meet the deadline for applying for hazard mitigation dollars. FEMA already has extended the application deadline more than once and no further extensions are likely, Hemphill said.
Homeowners who indicate an initial interest in the buyout are not committing to the program, though, she said. They will have opportunities throughout the process to leave the acquisition program if they later decide not to sell.
Hemphill said the City of Minot originally pursued hazard mitigation money to acquire homes in the path of the river diversions that are part of a proposed flood control project. No construction, including flood control structures, can occur on land acquired with mitigation money. No construction would occur in the diversion channels, which would remain as green space used to divert river water during flood periods. However, the city learned late this fall that land purchases for diversion channels are ineligible for mitigation funding.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., pushed legislation through the Senate that would have allowed mitigation money to be used to acquire property on which flood control structures could be built. The bill died in the House.
Hemphill said the city also had been pursuing the establishment of an advisory base flood elevation after learning about the option through Murray Sagsveen, the governor's former flood recovery coordinator. It has only been used once previously in Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Once engineers completed the work of developing recommended elevations, city staff spent several weeks analyzing the information before bringing a report to the city council on Dec. 3.
Before next Tuesday's meeting, city staff hope to gather additional information on the status of the houses that would be eligible for buyout. It is known that a number of these houses have been repaired. If the council pursues the advisory base flood elevation, owners of these renovated homes still would be offered a voluntary buyout. As an option to selling, homeowners can choose to have the city use hazard mitigation money to relocate their houses outside the flood zone.
If houses are demolished or removed using mitigation funds, the lots cannot be rebuilt upon with any type of permanent structure. Use would be limited to green space, such as parks or gardens. The city could not sell the land to neighboring landowners or others.
These potentially vacant lots are a concern for the city, as are other potentially vacant lots that could result if people cannot afford to rebuild to the new flood elevations.
An advisory base flood elevation of 9,600 cfs would force adoption of building codes that require new construction to occur only above the flood elevation. A car garage or storage would be acceptable as the lowest level of a house, but no living quarters would be allowed below the flood elevation.
Given the timeline of the process, those new building standards likely would be in place by the next construction season. Several hundred homes in the valley for which work has not yet started could be subject to the new rules, according to the city.
City engineer Lance Meyer said until a hydrology study is finalized, the city can't say what the proposed flood elevation might mean for various areas in town. Some parts of the former Lincoln Elementary area have been estimated to need a raise of six to eight feet, but some other parts of the valley could be significantly lower.
Building code changes would affect the Minot's two-mile jurisdiction as well, Meyer said.
In action unrelated to the federal hazard mitigation program, Ward County is proposing to adopt a construction ordinance that sets the flood elevation at about 27,000 cfs, the level of the 2011 flood. Unlike the rules that the city would adopt, the change exempts people rebuilding on the flood plain.
County engineer Dana Larsen said the ordinance is aimed at developers. Anyone who wants to develop in the flood zone needs to ensure that no potential exists for a flood disaster, he said.
The county currently has a moratorium on building in the flood zone, but that also doesn't affect people who are rebuilding. In some cases, people have had to obtain variances to build because of the moratorium, and Larsen said that option would continue to exist should the new ordinance take effect.
The Ward County Planning Commission has a public hearing on the ordinance scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. in the courthouse.
In a separate matter, the county applied in January for FEMA hazard mitigation money to buy six homes. The county has not yet received an award of funds, Larsen said.
Regardless of what Minot and Ward County do, new flood elevations likely are inevitable at some point. Because of the 2011 flood, FEMA has been considering changes in the flood plain map.
A map change by FEMA would reset the area considered to be in the flood plain, but it would not change the situation created by an advisory base flood elevation. In both instances, residents in the defined flood plain would typically have to carry flood insurance on mortgaged properties. Land acquired with mitigation dollars still could never be built upon, and construction standards would exist throughout the identified flood plain.
Construction of a flood protection project also would change the flood plain again, although that could be years from now. Engineers have estimated planning could take five years and construction another 10 years, if funding is available. Minot's portion of the proposed flood protection project is estimated at $543 million.