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Bill would add protection for homeowners during natural disasters

BISMARCK -- Republican Sen. Spencer Berry said his Fargo home found itself up against rising water during the 2009 flood.

With little time to sandbag, the U.S. Corps of Engineers asked for permission to build a dike behind a string of houses, including his, that were vulnerable to the rising waters.

Berry said the quick decision was the right decision, and prevented many homes from the flood.

Berry allowed the Army Corps onto his property and was willing to accept any damage incurred as a result, but a bill heard Tuesday would require compensation for property owners for any property that is damaged as a result of negligence during a locally-declared disaster or emergency.

Under House Bill 1025, local authorities would be required to cover the compensation if they damaged property while managing or using land to quickly respond to a disaster but do not have permission to enter that property.

The bill passed through the House with a unanimous vote and is now in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"It's reasonable a homeowner can sign an agreement, but any damage as a result of undue care the city needs to pay for it," said Greg Wilz, deputy director of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

The bill addresses the use of right of entry agreements, where property owners allow an organization, such as the Corps of Engineers, to come onto their property to address issues relative to a disaster or emergency.

Wilz said the bill "rectifies a practice that has occurred in recent disasters."

With his experience with flooding, Berry said the bill makes sense.

"It's an inconvenience, yes," he said about entities such as the Corps of Engineers ruining property with permission, "but for your house, it's a no-brainer."

But cities and counties are worried the bill could cost political subdivisions more than they can handle.

The original bill included a section to use funding from the state's disaster relief fund, but the section was taken out during the House committee hearing because that funding is designated for presidential declared disasters only, said Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck.

Aaron Burst, with the Association of Counties, said the original bill was good, but its current form would make it difficult for smaller political subdivisions to make the compensations.

Some are looking to the state's Insurance Reserve Fund to see if it could cover some of the costs, although the fund has denied past claims after a local authority's decision resulted in damaged property, according to testimony heard Tuesday.

It's unclear whether the Insurance Reserve Fund would fund claims as a result of damage incurred from a local authorities decision to declare a disaster or emergency.

The hearing was postponed until Monday to allow interested groups time to draft an amendment that would find funding to help offset compensation costs.