Billings County offers landowners $1.3 million in effort build bridge
Approval of $20,000 per acre is being set aside for land acquisition, after an area family's $500,000 litigation dropped. Considerations for eminent domain to seize property remains a possibility.
MEDORA, N.D. — A controversial bridge project that may involve the use of eminent domain to seize property continues to divide public opinion in Billings County. Commissioners recently discussed offering $20,000 per acre for the land needed, with an additional $500 per acre for temporary right of way for the bridge — which would split the land owned by the Short family, which is not for sale.
Allegations of financial conflicts of interest remain focal points of dissension against two of the three commissioners who support the project, but they deny these claims. While supporters argue that the bridge is essential for hunters, tourists, residents and first responders, opponents argue the use of eminent domain and the potential impact on the environment are serious concerns.
Stacey Swanson, Billings County tax and zoning director, reported to the Commission that she gathered sales and valuations data on comparable land for the surrounding areas in Slope, Golden Valley and McKenzie Counties that ranged from April 2020 to December 2022. Swanson said that prices varied from approximately $1,570 to $2,280 per acre.
As the meeting proceeded, Jerol Gohrick, president of a North Dakota conservative group called Sons of Liberty, took to the podium and alleged that Commissioners Steven Klym and Lester Iverson held direct financial conflicts of interest on the project. Klym then motioned to enter executive session, in order to discuss potential negotiations with landowners after addressing the accusation.
Klym denied any conflict of interest, with Tami Norgard, legal counsel hired by the commission for this project, directly addressed Gohrick’s claim.
“The only time a commissioner would have a conflict of interest on something is whether when they have a financial interest a personal pecuniary interest in the outcome of an issue. So the mere fact that somebody is an employee somewhere doesn't create a conflict of interest. But understand that we're well aware of the conflict of interest laws and the requirements, and certainly the board will be adhering to those,” Norgard said.
Gohrick questioned how the commission can have negotiations under such circumstances.
“The Short family is not in any negotiations for the purchase of their land. My understanding is this bridge is going to split in the middle of their land, they are not in any way shape, or form going to negotiate a price at all, for the sale of that land. So why are we trying to negotiate on somebody's land when it's not for sale?” Gohrick asked.
The commission proceeded to enter executive session for approximately 35 minutes.
Upon reconvening, Iverson made a motion to offer $20,000 per acre for the land needed on a permanent basis for the land, with $500 per acre going toward securing temporary right of way. The motion was approved in a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Dean Rodne voting in opposition.
During the meeting, Iverson said there is a total of 66 acres that is sought for permanent acquisition and 17 acres they would need temporarily.
In an email to The Dickinson Press, Swanson broke down ownership of the land being sought. Of the 66 acres approximately 43 belong to the Short family, with 21 owned by Ben Simons and 2.5 owned by the Tarrymore Ranch Company. Of the 17 acres needed for temporary right of way, 12 belonged to the Shorts and 12 to Simons.
Regarding the alleged conflict of interest, Klym confirmed that he does own and operate an oilfield business called Scuba Steve Well Service, LLC., in a phone interview with The Press on Tuesday following the meeting.
“I have a very small oilfield roustabout business of less than five employees… We don’t even provide services in that area,” Klym said. “I will not benefit on any of my services from this project. I will not be performing any construction related services towards the project. I will not have any economic or dollar advantage. Yeah, I am on the county fire department and our department will benefit.”
He argued that road crews and residents will also benefit substantially. Klym estimated that an individual would have to drive 70 miles in order to get around the area rather than simply driving across a bridge.
Iverson, who was also publicly accused of a conflict of interest and personal gain, dismissed accusations of corrupt influence saying that he works as a production foreman for the Killdeer based oilfield company Continental Resources.
“As far as I know, we don't have any leases in that area. And to be truthful, if there were good potential wells somebody would have been drilling them up by now… I have no control over what they do anyway,” Iverson said.
When asked about accusations that he’s financially or in some other way beholden to oil trucking businessman Jim Arthaud, Iverson called the assertions “ridiculous.”
“People have their opinion of everything. We're a small town with 900-some people so no matter which way you go around, somebody knows somebody and they're not going to agree on what's going on. In no way, shape or form that I decided to get into this because of Jim Arthaud,” he said.
He added that he feels it’s an important project because it will enable easier passage by hunters, tourists, residents and first responders.
“It'll be used by everybody that visits. It's all about the Badlands. Without a doubt the (Theodore Roosevelt Presidential) Library's got big plans. You get the comment that, ‘There's only a handful people that live there. Why would you build a bridge?’ Well, it's not just for a handful of people. It's a bigger picture to serve all the people that are visiting, working, responding to incidents; whatever it may be,” Iverson said. “You can’t have any progression without development.”
Constructing the crossing at the Elkhorn Ranch site was off the table once the federal government acquired that land and incorporated it into the National Park, he noted, pointing to the environmental impact study. When asked how he would justify the use of eminent domain, he said they’ll cross that proverbial bridge if the time comes.
“There’s rumor that no matter what we pay that they aren’t going to accept. We’re not there yet. So we’ll handle that as it comes,” he said.
After the meeting Bismarck man Dave Otterness, a family friend of the Shorts, said he believes the whole project is unnecessary and that it’s motivated by business interests.
“It just seems too pristine of an area to run a road through for oil. I don't think it has anything to do with public safety. You talk to the ranchers up there and none of them are going to use the bridge,” Otterness said. “They (the Short family) have always been good to people, let people hunt and share that experience up there.”