HICKSON, N.D. (AP) — Paul Cose and his wife bought 80 acres of prime Red River Valley land more than a decade ago to create their dream setting among the spruces and evergreens in southeastern North Dakota. They even built a tree fort.
Cose says their idyll turned sour when he learned that a $1.8 billion proposal to re-route the flood-prone Red River to save a metropolitan area of 200,000 people could put his property under 6 feet of water and turn his fort into an island getaway. He and a dozen other infuriated Cass County residents say their elected officials aren’t listening to them — and they want out.
They want to belong to neighboring Richland County instead. It’s called annexation. And they’re dead serious.
Greg Hanson, one of the organizers, said most people think the group is nuts for even thinking about it. He admits the idea might be the target of jokes. But he and Cose feel there are no other options.
“The way I look at it, I have nothing to lose,” said Cose, 62, who runs a fertilizer and agriculture storage business. “I have no confidence that any county commissioner cares one bit about our place.”
State law is a little fuzzy on what it would take for the group to change jurisdictions. Hanson is circulating a petition in the towns of Hickson, Christine and Horace that he believes would force both county commissions to put the issue on the ballot in the next general election.
But one county official says if the area affected by a possible county line shift is smaller than a so-called congressional township, or 6 square miles, the county commissions should decide whether the issue goes up for a vote. In that case, a petition wouldn’t matter, Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said.
“It’s a little unclear,” Burdick said. “It seems to me you would somehow have to define the shape of the territory and figure out how that correlates to a congressional township.”
While it’s far from clear that joining Richland County could change the outcome, the group feels officials there would speak up more for property owners. Hanson said the group plans to first approach Richland County commissioners with the signatures and go from there. Hanson said at least two of the five Richland commissioners have told him they would support the move.
“The wording on our first petition wasn’t quite right,” Hanson said. “We’re going to resign it and resubmit it to Richland County. I think that’s our first hurdle: They have to accept it.”
Residents around Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., have grown weary of battling major flooding, including a record Red River crest in 2009 that caused millions of dollars in damage. A massive sandbagging effort prevented further devastation.
The proposed diversion has sparked protests from several communities downstream of the north-flowing river that stand to lose houses, churches, businesses, farmland and school district revenue. Under the current diversion layout, about 1,000 people would face buyouts or require flood control measures like ring dikes that would isolate their property, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says.
Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the Cass County commission, said he’s sympathetic to the fears of anyone who would be affected by a diversion, but called the threat of annexation “pie in the sky.” He said it’s his job to represent all county residents.
“There is going to be somebody who is negatively impacted no matter what you do with water issues,” Vanyo said. “I don’t know what they would be gaining here, except for a dislike of leadership in Cass County.”
Mike Montplasir, the Cass County auditor, said that while it’s fairly common for residents to petition to switch school districts, he’s never had a group of residents want to flee their county without leaving home.
“Moving parts of a county to another county, I’ve never heard of that before,” he said.
Another area resident, Lance Freier, said he bought 25 acres of land in 2007 and completed construction of his house in 2010. Flooding wasn’t an issue until the diversion proposal, he said.
Freier, 41, said he didn’t realize that annexation to another county was an option, but thinks it’s worth a try.
“Apparently it’s a long shot,” Freier said. “It would be nice to have someone listen to people in that corner of Cass County.”
Vanyo said there have been numerous public hearings and opportunities for public comment on the diversion. He said he hasn’t heard from any of the people interested in the annexation.
“The biggest complaint they always have is that they don’t have a voice,” Vanyo said. “I for the life of me don’t understand the voice they haven’t had.”
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