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Dayton backs effort to buy flood-threatened Newport homes

Gov. Mark Dayton discusses state flood preparation during a meeting Wednesday in Stillwater. Dayton said he would support an effort to permanently resolve Newport's decades-old Mississippi River levee problem, such as by offering the city state funds to buy flood-threatened properties. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise.1 / 2
Sen. Katie Sieben listens during a state flood preparation meeting Wednesday in Stillwater. Also pictured are Republican Sens. Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo (left) and Ray Vandeveer of Forest Lake. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise.2 / 2

Gov. Mark Dayton said he supports a proposal to use state funds to buy residential properties along the poorly constructed, unsound levee in Newport.

The governor said he would back a measure to use state-borrowed dollars to resolve the flood threat in Newport, where roughly one dozen homes sit adjacent to a structurally unsound earthen levee.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said she is preparing legislation that would direct $3.2 million from a bonding bill to the city of Newport to buy up to 15 properties in danger of severe flood damage along the Mississippi River levee.

Dayton expressed his support for state involvement in a permanent flood solution for Newport during a meeting Wednesday on flood preparation. The governor and state officials met with local government leaders in Stillwater and South St. Paul to discuss plans to fight predicted major flooding of the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers this spring.

Newport officials have said they will not reinforce the levee with sandbags, saying the city wouldn't risk the lives of volunteers on a levee that an Army Corps of Engineers report deemed unsound. "We don't want to put more weight, more stress, lives, on the levee," Newport City Administrator Brian Anderson said Wednesday. "It's one thing to lose a home. It's another thing to lose the lives of volunteers."

The city will provide sandbags for residents, but Newport homeowners near the levee on Cedar Lane are largely on their own to fight what the National Weather Service has said could be record floods.

Dayton called Newport's levee situation "unacceptable."

"That's distressing," he said. "Some of these matters should have been addressed previously, in previous bonding bills."

The National Weather Service predicts a 90 percent chance of major flooding of the Mississippi River at Hastings this spring. There is an 86 percent chance of the river flooding in St. Paul. There was no estimate given for the Newport area.

The forecast placed the likelihood of major flooding on the St. Croix River at Stillwater at 62 percent.

Sieben said her funding proposal is based on a city of Newport estimate that it would cost $3 million to buy out the roughly one-dozen homes along the levee.

"What makes this a strong proposal for the state to consider is that instead of trying to fix the dike, which is obviously problematic, it's saying let's just buy the homeowners out," Sieben said. "I've talked to a lot of them and they want to be bought up."

Sieben said the state in the past has provided funds to local communities to buy property in flood areas.

"It's certainly not without precedent," she said.

However, securing the funding is far from a guarantee. Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature disagree over whether a major public works funding bill should be passed this year. Even if a bonding bill passes with flood projects, Sieben said it is "pretty unlikely" the entire $3.2 million request would be fulfilled.

Dayton reserved some hope of legislative support for the measure.

"When there's a will there's a way," the governor said.

In addition to the bonding proposal, Sieben said she may try to get Newport included in a group of cities that could be eligible for competitive flood mitigation grants administered by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Afton, which also faces a flood threat this spring, was eligible for similar flood grant money in last year's bonding bill, but the city has struggled to come up with matching funds needed to participate, Pat Snyder, the city's mayor, said.

See the upcoming print edition of the Bulletin for more on this story.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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