Image: John Stern
Dave Kolpack  /  AP
John Stern points out to the Red River from what he calls his favorite room of his south Fargo home designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright family. The city is offering to buy out Stern's house to help protect the city from flooding. Fargo has bought about 50 properties since the record-setting flood in 2009 that damaged 100 homes and caused millions of dollars of damage. City officials say the goal is to protect the city from Red River flooding without sandbagging.
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updated 2/27/2011 4:03:30 PM ET 2011-02-27T21:03:30

John Stern has lived in Fargo all his life, buying a dream home on the Red River more than 25 years ago.

The city is offering to pay him for the 1,800-square-foot Frank Lloyd Wright family home if he wants to move off the flood plain. But Stern says he's not going anywhere.

He fondly recalls the first time he walked through the brick house, with its unique twists and turns, and looked out at the river from an elevated living area.

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"It was like entering a work of art — this room," said Stern, 62, retracing his steps from the 1984 tour. "All of the angles, the view out to the river. It's almost like you're in a tree house, because you are up high among the trees."

Stern's home is one of 15 that sit in a row along the river in the south River Road neighborhood recently placed on Fargo's buyout list. The city began removing homes near the river after a record-setting crest in 2009, the first of back-to-back major floods.

National Weather Service officials are predicting what city administrator Pat Zavoral calls "something pretty big" for this spring: a 70 percent chance that the water will top last fall's crest, which was the sixth highest on record.

City officials emphasize that the buyouts are voluntary, but caution that the money might run out by the time a resident decides to sell. Some homeowners feel they are being unduly pressured and that being placed on the list could lead to them receiving less than their properties are worth. The city said property values won't be affected.

"We look forward to your help in saving our neighborhood," Stern wrote in a letter to the city commission. "We won't be leaving, regardless what the commission decides regarding the buyout list."

Stern and his neighbors banded together last year to help keep their names off the list. But afterward, an engineering survey showed that a handful of River Road residents were willing to talk to the city about selling, said a city attorney who has been handling the buyouts.

"I can certainly empathize with the position that these people are put in, through no fault of their own," attorney Butch McConn said. "Choosing to purchase a house on a river lot, I don't think is a fault. You do that for certain reasons, and times change."

Stern's River Road house experienced its first major flood in 1997. He said he had 11 electric pumps fighting off the water and kicking it out and he "still couldn't keep up" with the flooding.

He built a clay dike in 1999 that marked the end of his walkout basement. He fortified the levee with sandbags in 2009.

Others in the neighborhood have taken steps to improve their flood protection, sometimes spending thousands to build up their property.

Daniel Holm, who has lived in his house for 50 years, spent about $50,000 to raise the foundation of his three-bedroom bungalow after the 1997 flood. "You don't see any cookie cutter homes here," said Holm, who like other residents along River Road takes pride in the fact that no two homes are alike.

McConn acknowledges the neighborhood's uniqueness and said he understands why residents have varying perspectives on the value of their homes.

"When they get that appraisal and they get that offer in the mail, some jaws drop and they say, 'Are you kidding me? Over my dead body,'" McConn said. "While others say, 'Thank you so much. Where do I sign?'"

Stern said his house has an appraisal value of $225,000.

"I couldn't replace this house on a lot similar to this for three quarters of a million dollars," he said.

Holm said that while the buyout is voluntary, he believes the city is trying to wear down residents.

"Every meeting has become more and more adversarial," he said. "It kind of reminds me of the game Pac-Man. They just keep gobbling them up until they get the prize in the middle."

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But McConn says, "The last thing I want for myself, personally and professionally, is for somebody to think I'm pressuring them and twisting their arm to sign on the dotted line. That's not how I do business."

The citywide buyout plan is designed to protect Fargo in the event of a so-called 500-year flood, which would require the removal of at least 800 homes.

About 50 homes have been purchased since the 2009 flood. McConn has talked to another two dozen homeowners in the last few months, but only one sale has been finalized.

The homes targeted by the city would be in harm's way regardless of whether a planned Red River diversion is built, city officials said. A 500-year flood event would produce a flow of about 70,000 cubic feet per second through town. The diversion would cut out half of that, which would leave 35,000 cfs coming through town. The 2009 flood had a flow of 32,500 cfs.

The buyouts are being financed primarily through sales tax money, which McConn said is likely to dry up down the road.

"A lot of people along the river are betting that the city will be there to buy the house," he said. "I don't think that's true."

In the meantime, the city has said it will help all homeowners with sandbagging. Stern and Holm believe that would be cheaper than buying and demolishing homes and disconnecting utilities.

"I'm convinced that I can save the house from whatever Mother Nature throws at me," Stern said. "And if it costs me $10,000 a year to do it, I'm way ahead from trying to take whatever the city would be able to offer me."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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