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Penned in by water

PENN, N.D. -- A visitor could get lost in the solitude of this hamlet on a clear, crisp day in January, surrounded by virtual silence, except for an occasional train whistle, a snowblower off in the distance, or the muffled sound of cars and truc...

Buckhorn Saloon
Kim Fagerlund, who manages the Buckhorn Saloon, the only business in Penn, N.D., gets ready to open the bar for another day. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

PENN, N.D. -- A visitor could get lost in the solitude of this hamlet on a clear, crisp day in January, surrounded by virtual silence, except for an occasional train whistle, a snowblower off in the distance, or the muffled sound of cars and trucks traveling along the adjacent U.S. Highway 2.

A pair of friendly dogs, Labrador crosses, one black, one off-white, serve as unofficial community greeters, taking turns leading or following a slow-moving vehicle along the snow-covered dirt lanes.

By this time next year, such occasions might be viewed as exciting events in Penn, 11 miles west of Devils Lake, which could well become North Dakota's newest ghost town.

Owners of 11 of the 16 occupied homes have applied for federal buyouts in this unincorporated village with an estimated population of 25.

The growing Devils Lake is more than a mile away. But the water table throughout the Upper Devils Lake Basin is so high that it's flooding septic systems, forcing many residents to pump water -- even raw sewage -- from their property from spring thaw to freeze-up.

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Locals have been struggling -- some within the same households -- with the dilemma of whether to seek or accept a federal buyout to give up their homes, or to stay and invest in an uncertain future.

"I don't really want it," Dick Legacie said of the buyout. "My wife would want it. We have the lowest spot in town."

The Legacies are among the 11 applicants for a buyout. Whether they and others accept buyouts depends on the property appraisals this spring and the amount of money the government offers.

Last spring, the Legacies' sewer backed up into the crawl space of their home. Dick Legacie is disabled. His wife, JoAnne, and family spent countless hours -- sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m. -- making sure pumps were running.

"They're tired of it," he said, "but I'd just as soon stay."

Across the street, Kim Fagerlund is staying put. She moved from Cando, N.D., about 20 miles away, to Penn six years ago. She bought an older house about two years ago, spending thousands on a new roof and siding. Now, she's replacing windows and redoing the interior.

"I didn't have any problems last spring," she said. "I hate to see the buyout happen, but there are people who don't have a choice."

Fagerlund manages the Buckhorn Saloon, the only business in Penn. The bar is open daily, serving a loyal clientele from the region and offering a weekly Friday steak night and other specials.

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How rules work

People here are acquainted with buyouts, but many are somewhat unfamiliar with the details. That's because the rules have changed in recent years.

In 2001, the federal government bought out the neighboring community of Churchs Ferry, N.D., 10 miles to the west. In the 1990s, it bought out Bowesmont, N.D., a tiny community along the Red River north of Drayton, N.D. And dozens of people living along the expanding shores of Devils Lakes have taken buyouts.

Most people here have friends who used to live in Churches Ferry. And some think there must be a better solution.

"You're watching your community die, and it doesn't seem like that should be necessary," said Lee Gessner, a Coulee Township supervisor who lives on the north edge of this unincorporated village and farms in the area. "We're having enough problems keeping people in these rural communities. I just don't think the government should be helping to make it happen."

He said state and federal officials didn't consult the township about a possible buyout. Because Penn is an unincorporated municipality, Coulee Township is the local government.

It receives about $7,000 in annual revenue from local property taxes. In 2000, the township had 108 residents.

Last year, it received $30,000 in federal funds to abandon a township road north of Penn. The road becomes Ramsey County Road 2 in Chain Lakes Township, just north of Penn.

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Township supervisors haven't spent the money yet. Instead of abandoning the road, they decided last fall to spend a share of the money to fix culverts and improve drainage in and around Penn, in an effort to get rid of some of the water and ease the flooding problems.

But winter came before the project could be completed.

"It really doesn't make sense to close that road," Gessner said. "FEMA gave Chain Lakes money to fix that same road, in another location, and they gave us money to abandon it."

He said federal money would be better spent on a project to build new septic systems for any resident who has enough property to accommodate a mound drainage system and to provide modern rural water hookups. That could cut the buyout down to one property.

State officials say a buyout makes sense in Penn.

"Quite frankly, in trying to put in new sewer systems where the ground is so saturated, it's difficult. But the buyout is completely their choice. Nobody has to accept it," said Ray Morrell, hazard mitigation specialist with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

Widespread woes

While Penn might seem isolated, it's not alone in dealing with water problems. The state DES and Federal Emergency Management Agency are reviewing 28 applications for buyouts or other hazard mitigation programs from all over the state after last year's flooding.

The potential buyouts include one house along the Red River just north of Grand Forks, one house in Crary, N.D., 11 in Penn, and others in Mott, Linton, Lisbon, West Fargo, Valley City, rural Emmons County and rural Barnes County.

Morrell said enough money has been allocated to cover all pending applications. NDDES has designated $20.8 million in grants through the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for buyouts and other mitigation measures and expects to award an additional $5.6 million in the coming months, according to Gov. John Hoeven's office.

The grants consist of 75 percent federal, 15 percent local, and 10 percent state funding.

In communities such as Penn, which has virtually no local government money to contribute, the 15 percent local share would have to be paid by homeowners seeking the buyouts. In practical terms, that means buyout offers likely will be 15 percent below the appraised values.

Rick Anderson, director of the North Central Planning Council, Devils Lake, which prepared the buyout applications, said the program has changed since the Churchs Ferry buyout in 2001.

"That was a purchase of a city, rather than the purchase of individual homes," he said.

Back then, he said the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had money available to cover the 15 percent local contribution, so buyout offers were closer to actual appraised values.

"That program no longer exists," he said. "(Hurricane) Katrina happened, and things changed."

He said a HUD program that no longer exists also provided federal money to Grand Forks to build new housing in the Congressional Subdivision after the Flood of 1997.

If the money comes through, local residents will get appraisals this spring, perhaps in April, which could coincide with the spring thaw. If they accept the offers, the transactions likely would be completed by the end of the year, and they'd move away from town.

Gessner, the township supervisor, has another problem with the buyout proposal.

A saturated basin

Much of Penn sits at 1,462 to 1,463 feet above sea level.

Devils Lake, which has risen by more than 25 feet and has swallowed thousands of acres of basin farmland since 1993, is at an elevation of about 1,450 feet, after peaking at 1,450.7 feet last summer. Devils Lake has a natural outlet to the Sheyenne River through the Tolna Coulee at 1,459 feet.

Gessner has lost 400 of the 1,400 acres of land he farms, either to lake water or high water tables that make it impossible to negotiate with equipment.

"Early last spring, I was ready to leave Penn. Water was within 20 feet of my grain bins," he said. "But then, I thought, I don't think my great-grandfather would have quit. So, I'm staying as long as I can. I like living here. I don't like that someone living somewhere else can decide that I shouldn't live here."

With Churchs Ferry already gone and Devils Lake lapping at the edges of Minnewaukan, N.D., Gessner thinks federal money should be used to help other basin residents living at lower elevations than his neighbors in Penn.

"If the people of Penn are eligible for a buyout due to high water tables and sump pumps running all the time, then all the people of the Lake Region should be," Gessner said. "It is time to find some backbone and say no to dike-building and buyouts. It is time for the backbone that will be put into place policies that will help and not destroy the Lake Region."

Fagerlund wonders about the future of Penn. If all 11 homeowners accept buyouts, she'll be one of 10 or fewer people left in town.

"I don't want to leave Penn," she said. "It's a very close-knit community. Everybody looks out for each other. What's going to happen to the community? There won't be much here. I think the bar will be OK. But it's kind of scary. It's going to be very sad if it happens."

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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