A Minnesota philanthropist has been fighting to preserve a historical village after county officials learned the buildings sit in a flood plain and could jeopardize residents’ ability to get federally subsidized insurance.
The village owned by 75-year-old Jack McGowan includes replicas of a general store, saloon and other old-time structures. Seated at the confluence of the Le Sueur and Blue Earth rivers, it serves as the site of Mankato’s annual History Fest.
But McGowan has been told he must move or demolish at least eight buildings after the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined they sit in a flood plain. McGowan told Star Tribune he’s nearing the end of a one-year deadline and the village meant for making memories could become one itself.
“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 said they don’t want to see the village go, but they can’t risk suspension from the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides federally backed insurance at affordable rates and makes the area eligible for federal disaster aid should a flood occur.
About 60 rural Blue Earth County residents have insurance through the federal program.
“We have a responsibility to all of our Blue Earth residents and taxpayers to enforce the rules,” County Administrator Robert Meyer said. “We take that responsibility seriously.”
McGowan built the village in part with labor from low-level offenders who were sentenced to do community service. He never applied for permits for the buildings, which is one reason the situation might have escaped notice until March 2012, when the general store opened.
Blue Earth County Zoning Administrator George Leary knew no permits had been issued for the building and started an investigation. When he learned the buildings were in a FEMA-drawn flood zone, federal and state officials got involved.
Chris Sandquist, McGowan’s pro-bono lawyer, said the fuss is hard to understand when the buildings involved are uninsured, uninhabited structures. If they flooded, McGowan said, there would be no cost to taxpayers.
“I’ve never asked for a dime,” he said.
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