Feds evicting mobile homes at North Dakota lake

For over half a century, picturesque Lake Tschida in southwestern North Dakota has been the destination of choice for residents of nearby communities to spend warm summer weekends with friends and family.  In this semiarid part of the Northern Plains, where recreational lakes are few and far between, the reservoir has attracted cabins and mobile homes, whose owners lease lakefront parcels of land from the Bureau of Reclamation. 

But if the bureau has its way, an arrangement that has worked well for decades will be cast aside, with the owners of all 114 mobile homes being told to pack up and get out by 2022.  The bureau justifies its action by claiming that the mobile homes could be ripped from their moorings during a flood, posing a risk to the reservoir’s earthen dam and to areas down river.  After a severe flood – the worst in 50 years — struck the area in 2009, the bureau, without consulting leaseholders, abruptly directed that all mobile homes be removed from the lake no later than 2010.  Yet of 114 mobile homes on the lake, only 16 had water in them, and no homes became detached from their moorings. 

The bureau’s draconian move came less than a year after it had advised owners of cabins and mobile homes that they could expand the structures on their parcels.  Believing in the good faith of the bureau, many people, at considerable personal expense, added decks, sheds, and other improvements to their properties. “By issuing building permits for decks, septic systems, and other structures,” the Bismarck Tribune noted in a recent editorial, “the bureau has forfeited the ability to tell those with mobile homes parked in low-lying areas to simply clear out.”

Leaseholders at the lake have gone to extraordinary lengths to reach an accommodation with the bureau.  They have offered to move their mobile homes to a higher elevation on their lots, and to remove the homes altogether over the winter months.  The latter proposal would effectively eliminate whatever remote risk the mobile homes posed from floodwaters, because they would not be brought back to the lake until after the winter snow had melted.  All of this has been to no avail.  The only “compromise” the bureau has been willing to make is to allow the mobile homes to stay until 2022.  After that, they must go.  All the leaseholders have gotten is a stay of execution.

What’s more, the bureau’s claim that the mobile homes are situated in a so-called “flood pool” rests on shaky scientific ground.  It is based on information dating to 1943, six years before the Heart Butte Dam was built, creating Lake Tschida. 

For the time being, the bureau is targeting only mobile homes.  Even though some of the cabins are also in the “flood pool,” the bureau is leaving them in peace – for now.  But once the mobile homes have been expelled from the lake, what’s to keep the cabins from suffering the same fate?  Cabin owners on the lake must view the mobile homes as their last line of defense against whatever arbitrary and capricious action the bureau takes in the future.

“We’ve installed electric power service, planted trees, dug wells, built sheds, installed sewage systems, hauled in rock to protect banks from erosion, built decks, and landscaped our lots,” says Scott Ressler, president of the Heart Butte Association, a group representing leaseholders on the lake.  “This work – occurring year after year for over 50 years – has been done with the bureau’s knowledge. Typically, with its written consent”

Apart from the deep emotional attachment and the sweat equity the leaseholders have in their lots, significant financial investments are at stake.  New mobile homes installed and lot permits transferred in the past few years cost in the $40,000 to $70,000 range.  “When coupled with lot improvements, many of us have upwards of $100,000 invested, some even more,” Ressler points out.  “Assuming the value of our individual interests to be $55,000 – a conservative amount for some –, collectively the bureau’s actions affect well over $6 million in equity,” he adds.

The bureau’s move will have economic repercussions that go far beyond the leaseholders.  In a letter to North Dakota’s congressional delegation, Aaron Leverson, branch president of the First International Bank & Trust in neighboring Elgin, noted that local businesses “need the traffic of the Lake Tschida cabin owners, their extended families, and guests.”  He pointed out that, “Businesses such as the hospital, lumber yard, gas station, grocery store, hardware store, and bars, even our animal veterinarian, rely on Lake Tschida residents to keep their business up and running financially.” 

“Frankly, the bureau probably isn’t the right landlord for the job,” the Bismarck Tribune says, “but it’s the landlord the Lake Tschida people have.”  In truth, the federal government is never the right landlord.  People leasing land from a federal agency will always be at the whim of bureaucrats with their own agendas.  The controversy at Lake Tschida raises serious questions about how secure leaseholders are at other reservoirs around the country that are subject to the Bureau of Reclamation’s oversight.

Determined to fight back by drawing attention to the bureau’s bullying, the Heart Butte Association has recently affiliated with the American Land Rights Association. The battle is far from over.   

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.