A farmer moved to avoid the F-M Diversion. Now the route changed and his new farmstead is in the way.
Ryan Richard built a new farmstead when the original plan for the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion threatened his original farmstead. But the route of the revised diversion project now runs through his new farmstead, a setback he said will cost him millions of dollars.
HORACE — Ryan Richard was driving his pickup to buy steel supports for a new cattle barn when he got a news alert on his phone that would turn his life upside down.
Diversion officials had decided on a revised plan for the massive flood control project that put his farm in the bull’s-eye — a farmstead he had invested heavily in because the initial diversion plan would have claimed the farm’s original main farmstead.
The new cattle barn was to be the latest addition to the farmstead, which also included construction of a $1.4-million home for Richard, his wife, Jessica, and their four children; a couple of large machine sheds; and refurbishment of the farm’s original home — all built under the assumption that the original diversion plan would remain.
But the original plan provoked intense opposition in Minnesota, where regulators refused to grant a critical permit for the $3.2 billion project. A compromise design called Plan B resulted in a revised path for the diversion’s embankment.
“It’s people sitting in a room drawing lines,” Richard said. The revised plan resulted in a “camel’s hump” curve in the embankment, inside of which is his farm. “Now, with the stroke of a pen, we’re inside the line.”
After learning the news of the switch in plans, Richard called his father, Claude. Should he go ahead with plans to build the cattle barn? He was on his way to Iowa to buy steel. Plans could change again, and he believed he would be fairly compensated for any property taken for the project.
Ultimately, Richard decided to proceed with the new barn. But while he mulled over the decision, the price of steel jumped, a result of former President Donald Trump’s tariff on steel imports, increasing his cost by $18,000. He invested $500,000 in the barn.
A farmer member of the Cass County Joint Water Resource District board, which is buying land and property for the diversion project, advised Richard: “Just live your life.”
Now the Richard family is locked in a dispute with diversion officials over the value of land and buildings that are needed for part of the diversion’s embankment and a nearby wetland that will be created to mitigate environmental impacts from the project.
The targeted farmstead was homesteaded by the Rheault family, Richard’s maternal grandmother’s side of the family, in 1883, before North Dakota gained statehood in 1889. Ryan Richard is the sixth generation to farm the land.
But the farmstead built to dodge the diversion and now doomed by the altered diversion won’t be around much longer.
“Everything here gets bulldozed,” Ryan Richard’s father, Claude Richard, said, his arm sweeping to indicate the two houses, large machine sheds, cattle barn, grain bins and outbuildings.
The condemned buildings include the farm’s original home, where Claude Richard’s mother was born. In anticipation of the original diversion plan, the family improved the house with a new roof, new wiring, new furnace and renovation. The house was appraised at $228,000, Claude Richard said, but the diversion representatives are offering $69,000 after deducting depreciation.
Depreciation deductions are included in many of the offers for buildings and other improvements. “They’re hitting us with depreciation on the gravel drive,” Ryan said. “Apparently, we wore the rock out with our tires. They love depreciating things,” including home values.
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The Richards are descendants of a number of neighboring French immigrants who homesteaded in the area near St. Benedict Catholic Church back during the territorial era.
Their ancestors came down from Winnipeg, where they settled after leaving Nova Scotia. The families are close-knit, having lived alongside, and intermarried, for generations.
Now several of those families are among the 26 landowners in Cass County with pending eminent domain cases who haven’t reached an agreement on the buyout value of about 30 acres and the buildings.
“We haven’t settled on the land yet, and we haven’t settled on the buildings,” Claude Richard said.
Depreciation and other offsets leave a gaping margin between what the Richards believe their property is worth and what the Cass County Water Resource District is offering to pay, the Richards said.
“They’re just devaluing everything down,” Ryan Richard said. “They moved a little bit” in price, but nominal increases are offset by depreciation or other adjustments that diminish the value, he said.
Even the shelter belt Ryan Richard planted at his farmstead has been depreciated and likely will be uprooted for the diversion project, which will include a newly created wetland starting north of the rows of planted trees.
Jodi Smith, director of lands and compliance for the Metro Flood Diversion Authority, said landowners must be paid “just compensation” for their property. “Just compensation is equivalent to the fair market value of the property rights being acquired,” she said.
When appraisers hired by the Diversion Authority determine fair market value, “Depreciation of improvements is one consideration they may take into account,” Smith said.
The county’s offer for land and buildings is 6% less than the appraised value, Claude Richard said. “You don’t get to negotiate with them,” he said. “They’re just going through the motions.”
Meanwhile, the Richards have accumulated $60,000 in legal bills they say the diversion project is obligated to pay.
“Instead of paying us a fair price, they’re paying lawyers millions to hash it out,” Claude Richard said. “If it isn’t a ridiculous offer, then accept the offer and move on. We’re not asking for the moon here. I’m asking for my appraisal.”
The Metro Flood Diversion Authority has an obligation to negotiate with landowners, and the landowners have the right to obtain their own independent appraisal, Smith said.
“These appraisals can vary greatly sometimes,” she said. “While we enter into every negotiation with the intention of settlement, we also have an obligation to the taxpayers to not pay more than necessary for the property rights being acquired.”
Some landowners have asked to be paid double the independent appraisal, and one landowner requested 50 times the independent appraisal value used by the Cass County Joint Water Resource District to value the property, Smith said.
To build the diversion, which will include a 30-mile channel and a 20-mile earthen embankment to tame the Red River, officials need to acquire about 1,600 parcels of land. So far, she said, more than 800 parcels have been acquired from 300 landowners.
Settlements continue to be made. In December 2021, 31 landowners with 97 parcels faced eminent domain. By late May, the number dropped to 26 landowners with 84 parcels in eminent domain.
Also, Smith said, officials have reached a settlement involving two additional landowners with a parcel each that will be finalized soon and aren’t included in the late May figures.
“This week alone, I have met with legal counsel for two landowners and have scheduled a meeting with legal counsel for four more by the end of June,” she said.
The Diversion Authority has been successful in settlement negotiations “with the majority of landowners who are committed to the mediation process,” Smith said.
Cass County officials notified the Richards in October 2021 that they were offering $368,300 for about 31 acres of land and would file a “quick take” eminent domain lawsuit if an agreement wasn’t reached.
Under the quick take eminent domain process, county officials deposit the amount of the offer with the court, allowing access to the land. A court process, which can include a jury trial, decides the value of the property.
The Richards are encouraged by a recent decision by the North Dakota Supreme Court involving the land of neighbors Gene and Brenda Sauvageau.
In the Sauvageau case, the justices ruled that county officials couldn’t use the expedited quick take process because the case involved the couple’s home and other buildings in addition to land. In that case, the justices ruled, county officials must use the regular, and more time-consuming, eminent domain process.
If the quick claim process can’t be used against the Richards, the diversion negotiators will have lost their “ace in the hole,” Ryan Richard said. “They really can’t do this anymore.”
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Ryan Richard will move his farmstead to land the family owns 20 miles to the west. That will mean moving his kids to a new school district and to a new church parish. It also will require starting from scratch.
“There’s really nothing there” except for a few rundown buildings, he said. “Really starting from ground zero. I had what everybody wants here, 15 minutes out of Fargo.”
Ryan was interested in purchasing a couple other nearby farmsteads, but each was sold for more than the asking price before being officially listed. Finding a comparable replacement farmstead is exceedingly difficult, he said.
“Try to find someplace else,” Ryan Richard said. “That’s my argument.”
Building the diversion “impacts many families,” Smith said, “and we truly empathize with their situations. We are also tasked with completing this project to help protect the broader region in the most efficient and financially prudent manner possible.”
The former Rheault farm in the Richard family has never been flooded, including in 1997 or 2009, Claude Richard said.
“This is some of the highest ground in Stanley Township,” he said. “We’ve never thrown a sandbag.”
To help pay for his cattle barn, Ryan Richard qualified for a low-interest loan under a program to improve water quality by preventing manure runoff. But that loan was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; he is ineligible for a second loan.
So, moving will mean exiting the beef cattle business that is now an important part of his operation.
“The emotional strain and the marital strain they put on you, it’s incredible,” Ryan Richard said. “Even after we sign, that’s when the work starts.”
He was standing inside one of his machine sheds, with a tractor and seeder ready to go and filled with other farm equipment and supplies. Moving will not only be emotionally draining, he said, but physically laborious.
“This place was done,” ready for him to finish out his farming career. Now, he added, “I’m going to have to take on millions of dollars of debt.”