Weber County OKs use of eminent domain to complete Little Weber channel

Wednesday , April 08, 2015 - 6:26 AM

OGDEN — While the Hansen family farm in nearby Warren has survived several floods over the decades, three siblings worried that a federally-funded, county-managed solution to sporadic breaching of the Weber River could ultimately strangle their livelihood.

Larry Hansen, Douglas Hansen, Karen Tucker and their spouses own the 160-acre farm between 5500 to 5900 West and 500 North. Passed down for four generations, the property is now the sole holdout to completion of the $13 million Little Weber River Cutoff Channel Project. Fierce flooding in 2011, that endangered homes and placed many acres of western Weber County farmland under water, helped attract federal attention and funding for a long-range solution.

“We are survivors,” Douglas Hansen told Weber County Commissioners Tuesday, listing five different major floods they had weathered. “We’re still there, and we’re still trying to farm.”

Hansen said that he and other family members had tried to work with county officials for years to clean up the river, a precaution he believes would help it heal itself.

Over the past two weeks, Larry and Douglas Hansen said they have met frequently with County Engineer Jared Andersen and others to get details in writing that will ensure their crops can be irrigated and their cattle have drinking water in spite of the proposed concrete trench across their land.

“We’re really close,” Douglas Hansen said of the pending written agreement with the county that would spell out details to allow their farm to function into the future. With that in place, construction could proceed through their property.

However, the commission approved the use of eminent domain Tuesday — if needed — to obtain the swath of Hansen farmland. Commissioner Matthew Bell was absent, but Commissioners Kerry Gibson and James Ebert approved a resolution setting April 14 as the start date for the 30-day period before the county can launch legal proceedings to obtain that section of property.

“This really was quite an experience ... we were dealing with some serious peril,” Commission Chairman Kerry Gibson said of the 2011 flood that impacted his own dairy farm and also introduced him to crisis management in his new role as commissioner.

Gibson said that the state had not paid much attention to the county’s flooding woes in the past, but this time “they came to the table in a big way.”

“What an opportunity to see so many people come together and say we’re going to fix this problem,” Gibson said, adding that it would be very unfortunate to leave construction of the cutoff channel incomplete, a project he believes will serve the public good.

The comprehensive project, aimed at facilitating the flow of water west to the Great Salt Lake during major flood events, included riverbanks protection, debris cleanup, installation of multiple culverts and a new head gate on the south run of the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management area, and construction of the $3 million Willard diversion structure.

The project’s biggest piece, however, is the $8.5 million concrete trench — one mile long, 30 feet wide and eight feet deep — straight through the Hansen farm. The structure will need to be fully fenced to keep the Hansen family’s cows from falling in and getting trapped.

About 50 property owners are affected by the entire project, Andersen said, but none as heavily as the Hansens.

But Gibson voiced frustration that it took so long to get the Hansens and the county on the same page, adding that other property owners whom he believed were being similarly impacted had come on board more quickly.

“I never thought I’d be in a position in my government service to be sitting here and considering a resolution for eminent domain,” Gibson said, noting his personal views on private property rights.

“That’s what this resolution is about,” Gibson said. “We have to make sure that every step is taken so that now we don’t have to demobilize a contractor again and have them leave the area while we work out the details that should have been worked out years ago.”

Ebert underscored his commitment to minimizing harm to the Hansens.

“This is a project that has long-term implications and impact to the community,” Ebert said. “My preference would be to never do eminent domain.”

Karen Tucker, who had been living out of state during open houses and most of the negotiations associated with the project, said that the Hansen family appreciated delaying the resolution’s start date to April 14.

“It would help soothe some feelings,” Tucker said. However, she hoped that eminent domain would not be part of her farm’s legacy.

“We have lived a long time with the Hansen name being one of honesty and uprightness. That’s what we’re looking to defend,” noting that her father fought hard to pay off loans he’d taken out during hard years. “Give us a week, for my dad.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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