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Grand Forks starts expropriation measures at city properties

The homes were eligible for a buyout program after the historic flood of May 2018
Martin O’Brien said he bought his Fourth Street property with the intention that he’d stay there until he died. The city wants him to leave. Photo: Laurie Tritschler

Grand Forks city hall has begun expropriation proceedings for two North Ruckle properties, signaling the end of a voluntary buyout program designed to clear the neighbourhood ahead of major flood protection works.

Expropriation notices went up Aug. 10 — one at a vacant home on the 6900-block of First Street, the second at a retired pensioner’s home on the 6900-block of Fourth Street. Both properties were eligible for the city’s land acquisition program, which sought to purchase dozens of area properties affected by the 2018 freshet that devastated the city.

Both addresses fall on the water-side of future flood works designed to protect vital industry and city infrastructure from future flooding events, according to chief administrative officer Duncan Redfearn.

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To that end, the city has settled land sales with 85 out of 89 property owners, mostly in North Ruckle, since the program got underway in early 2020. Staff said the program would likely absorb an estimated $20 million in disaster mitigation and adaption funds made available by the federal and provincial governments. The city accepted around $31.5 million in extra spending to build flood works, provided that no permanent structures were left on the other side.

The city announced this spring that it was redoubling efforts to buy out a small number of holdouts in North Ruckle, adding that it was prepared to begin expropriation proceedings if negotiations failed to reach buyout agreements by mid-June.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re at this stage,” Mayor Brian Taylor told The Gazette, shortly before the city’s expropriation notices went up.

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Taylor added that he’s personally met with both property owners to discuss a number of potential buyout and land-swap resolutions, but “to no avail.”

Calling the program an overall success, Taylor said “It’s been, I think, a highly effective approach: We’ve come to agreements with a large number of people, but not with these two.”

But Martin O’Brien, 70, said the city never made him a formal offer on his 4th Street property.

Asked if the city offered to buy him out, O’Brien said, “I didn’t have the opportunity.” The city never presented him with a concrete financial offer to purchase his property, he said.

O’Brien said he bought his lot, where he lives in a mobile home, in 1992. “My intention was to live here, retire here and stay here until the day I die,” he said. His property flooded during the 2018 freshet, but the high watermark on his porch siding shows that his home never flooded.

Municipalities can take ownership of properties in the way of dikes and other flood works, provided that affected owners are given fair notice and that they get market value for their properties, according to the Community Charter and the Local Government and Expropriation acts.

Speaking to The Gazette, O’Brien countered that, “the city is in a monopoly purchasing position” adding that no dike is slated to be built over his property.

Redfearn responded that O’Brien was given several chances to participate in the program, but chose not to. O’Brien and Taylor have separately confirmed the mayor personally suggested that O’Brien consider taking a city-owned lot in South Ruckle in exchange for his 4th Street property. O’Brien said he turned down the offer, explaining that, as a senior citizen, he would have trouble accessing services in the downtown core as he grew older.

The long-term survivability of the Interfor sawmill, the city’s waste-water treatment plant and the city’s public works yard — most of which are in North Ruckle — hinge on area flood works paid for by the disaster fund, city staff have explained in several public council meetings.

The city’s disaster funding comes with conditions set by the province and the federal government. As part of that funding agreement, no permanent structures can be left on the unprotected side of the completed flood works. If nothing else were to change, both homes would be left on a natural flood plain, on the river-side of finished dikes. This would very likely jeopardize the city’s disaster funding.

Even if that weren’t the case, Redfearn explained that part of the city’s flood protection would likely involve digging out vast swathes of North Ruckle to disperse future storm surges along the Kettle River’s natural floodplain. Both homes in question now lie within this potential dig, he explained.

Next, the city has to take out all residential roads, sewer and water lines and electrical and gas utilities to make way for construction starting this summer.

O’Brien said the city would be setting a dangerous precedent if it were allowed to take his home, adding that he plans to mount a legal challenge to the city’s expropriation bid.

“The plan is to go to court and request an inquiry. And if the inquiry goes against us, then we’ll appeal that decision at a higher court.”

City council and Mayor Taylor are still hoping to reach a mutual agreement with both homeowners. “That window has not closed,” Redfearn said, stressing that the city would go through with the expropriations only as a last resort.

The Gazette has not been able to reach the registered owner of the disputed property on the 6900-block of First Street.



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