I wrote this past week about the battle between the Short family and the Billings County Commission and how it is going to finally go to court in January. The Short family, descendants of the late U.S. Congressman Don Short, own the land on the west side of the Little Missouri State Scenic River — the west end of the proposed bridge and the proposed road leading to it from the main road to the west.
The bridge is in a really bad location. It’s not more than a few hundred yards from the Short Ranch headquarters. Currently there are no Short family members living on the ranch — it is leased out to a tenant who operates the ranch. The road from the west leading to the bridge will cross a wide river bottom, and anyone going to and from the ranch headquarters will be competing with oil trucks and who knows what other traffic will use it. The bottom line is, the quiet Little Missouri River valley beside the ranch will become a major arterial mostly used by big trucks, which will kick up clouds of dust as they barrel across the bridge, through the valley, and up the hills on the other side. It’s a nightmare for anyone living nearby. It’s not something anyone could have expected, ever, would happen to the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley. Damn.
OK, so that’s the west side of the river. Nobody’s talking much about the east side. But every bridge has two sides, just like every river. As I mentioned here a couple of times, the land on the east side of the river is owned by a fellow named Ben Simons and his family. They bought the old Mosser ranch six or seven years ago, not anticipating anything like this. The east side of the bridge and the road leading to it will be located less than a mile from their ranch headquarters. As Ben told me this week, “It’s upriver a ways, but I’ll be able to see it from here.”
The road and bridge will cross about 20 acres of Simons’ land. The road leading from the bridge to U.S. Highway 85, which is the road the Simons family uses to get back and forth to town, passes about half a mile from their ranch. About all they’ll see, looking east from their place most of the time, is a dust cloud.
I wrote a while back that the county commissioners, in one of the most unspeakable acts of irresponsibility I’ve ever seen, offered the Short family and Ben Simons $20,000 of Billings County taxpayers’ money an acre for about 30 acres of pasture land on the west side of the river and about 20 acres on the east side. They were pretty sure it was an offer the ranchers could not refuse.
But the Short family has some financial resources, I think from oil wells and from the lease payments on their ranch. They turned it down and went to court.
For Ben Simons, though, there was a hard decision to be made. His 20 acres of pasture land would net him $400,000. So he and the county’s lawyers struck a deal. The county paid Ben $3,000 to sign a five-year option on his land. The $3,000 allows the county and its contractors to “enter the property for purposes of inspecting, surveying, conducting cultural resource surveys, soil surveys, geological testing, or other tests upon the property, or any other purposes necessary for Billings County to determine if it should exercise the option.”
The option then grants the county exclusive rights to purchase the property for $20,000 an acre. $400,000. Surely that will be the highest price for pasture land in North Dakota, ever.
When I talked to Ben Simons this past week, he said he agrees with the Short family and remains opposed to the county placing the bridge there. He said he spoke with county officials and asked them to move the bridge to a location up north of his place. They declined.
The bottom line here is, if the county wins over the Short family in court, and gets the right to build the bridge at their chosen location, the county writes a check to Simons for a little over $400,000. Ben didn’t come right out and say it, but if the bridge is going to be built, there’s no good reason for him to accept $2,000 an acre, the price the county will pay to the Shorts as part of the condemnation process, instead of the $20,000 an acre they offered to both the Shorts and Simons last summer.
The Short family has committed to use every available legal means to stop the bridge on their land. When they turned down the $20,000 per acre offer, they knew one of two things would happen. Either a judge will agree with them and stop the county from taking the land, or the judge will agree with the county and the Shorts get just $2,000 per acre. There’s a check for about $55,000, sitting in the Billings County Clerk of Court’s office, awaiting the outcome of the legal cases, which could stretch out for another year. Or longer.
No one’s going to fault Ben Simons for signing the option.
Setting the bar
Here’s an interesting little sidebar to all this. I was reading the minutes of the Billings County Commission’s October meeting the other day (I know, I need to get a life …) and darned near fell off my chair laughing when I read about a fellow named Joe Fritz.
I haven’t been able to reach Joe by phone, but I’ve talked to some folks out there and learned Joe owns some land southeast of Medora, and there’s a county road running through his place. There’s a bad intersection on his place, where you come over a hill and all of a sudden there’s a crossroads, and there have been a few accidents there. So the county engineer wants to put a long, sweeping curve there for traffic coming over the hill. Exactly the kind of thing county governments should do, to protect county residents.
To do that, they’ll have to acquire a couple of acres of Joe Fritz’s land. (Can you see what’s coming?) The county road crew has been talking to Joe about getting it done. Well, Joe reads the newspapers and blogs and County Commission minutes, too, and he read that the commissioners had offered $20,000 an acre to a couple of other Billings County ranchers for right of way for a bridge up north.
So according to the commission minutes (I wish I had been there, but I had a conflict that day), Joe showed up and said sure, he’d be glad to sell the county some land, for the same price they offered for the land for the bridge. Or, he said, if they would scrap the bridge plans, and not frivolously spend taxpayers’ money, he’d just donate the land.
And now, I’m hearing, subsequent to the meeting, a few other ranchers are making the same kind of offer. “You need a little land for right-of-way? Sure, just $20,000 an acre.”
So, it looks like the commissioners’ (note: Commissioner Dean Rodne has been opposed to all of this, but has been outvoted 2-1 at every step of the way) grandiose scheme to make “an offer they can’t refuse” to the Shorts and Ben Simons has now set the bar for future land acquisitions the county needs for roads and things. Oops. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the time I’ve spent in the Bad Lands, it’s never try to outfox a Billings County rancher.
Stay tuned. I’ll try to keep you informed.