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Jack McGowan’s make-believe general store and saloon have stood at the wooded confluence of the Le Sueur and Blue Earth rivers for years, taking children in southern Minnesota back to the way things were done long ago.
But following a recent decision of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the cluster of replica buildings that make up McGowan’s village must go, hobbit hut and all. It turns out that the farm site, which also hosts Mankato’s annual History Fest, has been sitting in a critical flood way all this time. Even if the local congressman, Minnesota DFLer Tim Walz, calls it a “treasured community resource,” it now threatens the entire county’s federal flood insurance program.
This has put McGowan, a 75-year-old businessman and philanthropist, at loggerheads with FEMA and Blue Earth County officials, who say at least eight of the farm’s buildings, while there for a good purpose, must be moved or demolished.
Facing a year-end deadline, McGowan says it’s an edict he can ill afford. With his options running out, he says his popular free attraction, “where memories are made,” could itself become just a memory, much like Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, the French explorer who is believed to have landed on the site.
“I’m the worst guy in the whole county,” McGowan said. “For 40 years, I’ve been out here building a park for kids, and all of a sudden, oh my gosh, am I ever terrible.”
County officials say they have no desire to close down a community fixture that brings tens of thousands of children in contact with history and nature every year. But it appears they have little choice after receiving a warning letter from FEMA last month. Ignoring McGowan’s flood plain violations, the feds say, will result in the county’s suspension from the National Flood Insurance Program.
The program, which makes available federally backed insurance at affordable rates, currently enrolls about 60 policyholders in rural Blue Earth County. Not only could they face surcharges and cancellations, officials say that millions of dollars in future federal disaster aid also could be at stake.
“We have a responsibility to all of our Blue Earth residents and taxpayers to enforce the rules,” said County Administrator Robert Meyer. “We take that responsibility seriously.”
‘It became more complicated’
The dispute comes as a surprise to McGowan, a lifelong and well-connected Blue Earth resident. Over the years, much of the labor that built his collection of lodges, picnic shelters and log cabins came from county corrections crews — low-level offenders who were court-mandated to do community work. County Board members, along with district judges, were regular visitors.
“That’s who built this,” said McGowan, a father of eight whose business card identifies him as an “authentic” Irishman.
Despite the parade of government officials, McGowan never pulled any permits for his buildings, an oversight that might have been OK in years of yore. But not anymore.
This had escaped official notice until March 2012, when Blue Earth County Zoning Administrator George Leary noticed an item in the Mankato Free Press about the opening of McGowan’s General Store. Leary knew that no permits had been issued for such a structure and went out to investigate. The rest is history.
Not only were there no permits for any of the buildings, but it turned out they were inside a FEMA-drawn flood way, which brought in the feds and the state Department of Natural Resources. “It became more complicated right away,” Leary said.
McGowan says he is mystified by the sudden official fuss. He figures if he needed permits, one of his guests from the county would have said something before. As for the flooding, he said he’s seen the water come up to the buildings only once — during a flash flood in 2010. The water came up to a child’s knee-level, he said, “and there wasn’t enough current to move a 4-foot wooden outhouse.”
Be that as it may, county officials have determined that the low-lying area at the confluence of two rivers is ripe for flooding. “Flooding is an unpredictable event,” Meyer said. “To say the risk is low, I think, is a debatable point.”
The controversy has come to a head around the anniversary of superstorm Sandy, which sparked similar spats between New Jersey shore homeowners and FEMA over what areas should be considered vulnerable to flooding, and hence more expensive to build on and insure.
But there is a significant difference, according to Chris Sandquist, McGowan’s pro-bono lawyer. Far from a pricey beach house on the coast, McGowan’s farm involves a collection of rustic, uninsured structures. “This is all because of some small, uninhabited buildings,” he said.
Were a river to sweep them away, McGowan says, it would cost taxpayers nothing. There would be no insurance to collect. “I’ve never asked for a dime,” he said.
But county and federal officials say the buildings still represent a danger to others, either by holding back and raising floodwaters upstream, or by adding to the debris on an onrushing surge downstream. Any failure by the county to act “could cause a situation where they’re possibly putting other homes and businesses at risk,” said John Devine, a flood insurance specialist in FEMA’s Chicago regional office. “We don’t want to insure people in those areas where they don’t enforce the minimum [regulations].”
McGowan has enlisted the aid of Walz and other friends in government. Walz has written FEMA Director Craig Fugate, asking for further investigation. McGowan also gets the sympathy of some county commissioners, along with former GOP congressman Vin Weber, his kid cousin.
“This is one of the most gold-hearted people you will ever know,” said Weber, now a well-connected Washington lobbyist.
Despite the good wishes and support, McGowan has come up on a bureaucratic quagmire where the rules are the rules. Meyer, in a peace offering, has raised the prospect of having sentence-to-serve crews — which the county stopped sending to McGowan’s farm — return to rebuild properly permitted structures outside the flood zone.
In the end, the next step is either for the county to act against McGowan, or for FEMA to act against the county, something all sides say they want to avoid.
Said Devine: “We don’t want to go to the next step.”
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter: @StribDiaz.