JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — $20,000 An Acre!

At about 9:15 Tuesday morning, in the Billings County Courthouse in Medora, N.D., Billings County commissioners voted to go into executive session and told the general public attending the meeting to leave the room. Well, two of the three commissioners — Steve Klym and Lester Iverson — voted to do that. A third, Dean Rodne, voted against the motion to go into executive session. But the majority rules.

We all left, except for the county’s lawyer, State’s Attorney Patrick Weir; County Auditor Marcia Lamb, the commission’s recording secretary; and a lawyer hired by Weir, Tami Norgard, Zooming in on a big screen from somewhere other than Medora to assist in anticipated legal action regarding the construction of a bridge across the Little Missouri River.

The purpose of the closed session was to discuss how much they were going to offer a pair of Bad Lands ranch families for the right to use some of their land for the bridge and the roads leading to it. North Dakota has pretty strict open meetings laws, but officials are allowed to discuss the beginning of negotiations for these kinds of things behind closed doors.

After being booted out of the commission room, about a dozen of us — reporters, spectators, a few county employees, a big old cowboy in a black hat (more about him in a minute), the former Billings County sheriff (who’s been pretty adamant, even in retirement, against the use of eminent domain and was there to monitor the whole business), the current Billings County sheriff (who agrees with his predecessor but who I joked with about his presence there being to throw any unruly spectators out of the room) — hung out in the foyer of the courthouse for about half an hour before we were called back in to hear a report on the executive session.

In their closed meeting, the commissioners had agreed on what was to happen next, but they were not allowed to make any motions during that closed session. But it didn’t take long for commission chairman Iverson to say they had decided to make an offer to the families of Sandra Short, who own 45 acres on the west side of the river, and Ben Simons, who own 21 acres on the east side. The 66 acres is what they said they needed for a bridge and an access road to it on each side of the river.

Iverson quickly made a motion to offer the two ranch families $20,000 an acre for the 66 acres, a total of $1,320,000. We all sat in the room in stunned silence. Such a price for land in the North Dakota Bad Lands was unheard of.

And we had all sat through a presentation just before the executive session at which county tax director Stacy Swanson said she had checked similar land sales in the area and the going price lately had been between $1,500 and $2,300 per acre. Those prices, of course, were for bigger tracts of land, ranging from a couple hundred acres to a couple thousand. But still … those two young county commissioners were playing pretty fast and loose with Billings County taxpayer dollars. I’ll be curious to see how the taxpayers react to that kind of spending.

The Shorts and the Simons’s are pretty big families. If they accept the offer, the Shorts will divide up $900,000 and the Simons’s $420,000. Whew.

There was an interesting little sidebar to the meeting. A fellow named Jerol Gohrick (the cowboy in the big black hat I mentioned earlier), founder and president of a group called the North Dakota chapter of the Sons of Liberty, which looks to be kind of an extremist group headquartered in northwest North Dakota, took to the podium in the commission room and accused the two bridge supporters, Iverson and Klym, of having conflicts of interest because they were both involved in the oil industry in their lives outside the courthouse. The oil industry stands to be the biggest winner if the bridge is built, giving their tanker trucks easy access to both sides of the river.

Klym owns a small oilfield business, and Iverson works for oilfield giant Continental Resources (of Harold Hamm fame). Both denied they had a conflict of interest, and after some back-and-forth, attorney Norgard put an end to the discussion, declaring that the two did not have a conflict of interest and could vote to determine the outcome of the bridge controversy. Period.

We may not have heard the last of the Sons of Liberty, though. I don’t think Gohrick was there representing the Short family, but he and his comrades are pretty persistent fellows. The North Dakota chapter is part of a larger national group that had representatives at the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. I’m not sure if any North Dakota members were there.

So I guess what happens next is the county sends a letter or asks for a meeting with the two families and makes them an offer for their land. I haven’t talked to anybody involved in this issue about whether they will accept the county’s offer since the meeting. I’ll let the Short and Simons families have their family discussions after the offers are made to decide whether to accept the county’s money. It’s a lot of money.

In earlier conversations with Dave Short, who’s the family spokesman on this issue, I heard him say they were not going to sell, no matter what. They absolutely did not want a road cutting through their hayfield, just a few hundred yards from their ranch headquarters, to accommodate oil trucks. But that was before he learned that his family stood to pick up almost a million dollars.

Likewise, Ben Simons has said he was standing with the Shorts. But I don’t think the Simons ranch would be impacted as much as the Short ranch because the ranch headquarters is located a ways downriver from the actual proposed bridge site (although you can see the bridge site from their place). Still, there could be a lot of truck traffic stirring up dust on his pastures, which is everyone’s major concern about the bridge. Somebody once said there might be as many as a thousand trucks a day crossing that bridge, and the amount of dust collecting on the pasture grass might make it unpalatable for the livestock and wild critters who depend on it for food.

But if the two families decline to take the incredible offer, Iverson and Klym have indicated they are wiling to exercise the county’s power of eminent domain and just go ahead and take it. That, I’m guessing, might bring the Sons of Liberty roaring into the valley of the Little Missouri State Scenic River. According to its website, the Sons are “A nonprofit organization … founded in response to the deterioration of our country and the injustices being inflicted on its citizens.”

“The Sons of Liberty operates exclusively for/to increasing awareness of local, state and federal government infringing on the constitutional rights, Freedoms and Liberties of its people …” the website says. You can read the whole mission statement here.

The Sons of Liberty at a rally outside the North Dakota Capitol. I’m not sure what the occasion was.
The Sons of Liberty at a rally outside the North Dakota Capitol. I’m not sure what the occasion was.

Well. That adds a whole new element to this controversy. It becomes a much bigger story.

If the county does move ahead with eminent domain, my guess is  the ranchers will challenge the county’s right to take their land in court. They’ll likely file for a temporary injunction to stop the “taking” until a federal judge rules on the case. They’ll likely get that injunction, and it could take a good long while for the case to make its way through the federal court system.

It could take a couple of years, and in that case, there’ll be an election for county commissioners — two of them, Rodne and Iverson, will be on the ballot in November 2024. The outcome of that election could put another temporary stop to the whole mess, just as it did three years ago, when the bridge’s original champion, commissioner Jim Arthaud, lost his bid for re-election to Rodne. As I wrote a few weeks ago, elections have consequences.

Oh, and one more little side note. Even though the commissioners voted to offer $20,000 an acre, if the ranchers turn it down and go to court and lose, the county, I think, would only be obligated to pay them fair market value for the land. To that end, the commissioners agreed Tuesday to hire an appraiser to come up with that fair market value. I’m not sure how all that will work, but the ranchers need to find out.

So now, we’ll wait and see if the two ranchers can turn down $1,320,000 for 66 acres of land. That’s gonna be a hard decision. Stay tuned.

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