As Winslow Plans to Move to Higher Ground After Flooding, Legal Questions Halt Progress

Jan. 13, 2020, 4 p.m. ·

Representatives from FEMA and NEMA debate next steps for relocating Winslow, Nebraska. (Photo by Christina Stella, NET News)

Citizens of Winslow, Nebraska have been searching for a way to move their town since floods ravaged their community last spring. But after a tense meeting with state and federal authorities last week, new questions are emerging about whether it’s possible.

Winslow would not be the first town in Nebraska’s history to pick itself up and move to a new location after flooding. Niobrara, which sits just off the Missouri River, has changed location twice since its founding in 1856.

But Niobrara moved its homes and businesses to an area within its own municipality. Winslow is looking to effectively set up a new town on private land purchased from a local farmer.

Zack Klein, who is a trustee of the village, knew the process wouldn’t be easy. He’s been doing his own research into the legal precedent of ditching the village’s current location for a spot on higher ground.

“In digging into it a little bit, there wasn't a clear path that was laid out in the statutes,” he said.

At a town meeting held at Winslow’s volunteer fire department last week, Klein’s suspicions were confirmed.

“We’re under Dillon’s Rule. We’ve got to find a statute that says, ‘Here's how you do it.’ Not, ‘Well, we can't find anything that says we can't. So we're going to go do this.’ That isn't how it works,” said L. Lynn Rex, executive director at the League of Nebraska Municipalities.

Under Dillon’s Rule, local government can only derive power from the state government.

The conversation also circled around whether the relocation is possible from a financial standpoint. Klein claimed the town can’t fully address the question until trustees know they will be legally allowed to move.

Plus, there are up-front costs to properly propose the project to investors. Environmental testing on the new land is estimated at $65,000, and the town will also need to pay for a plat map to be drawn up.

“If we knew that we could do it, we could start exploring the finances. Does the League want us to go out and now and start exploring how we're going to apply for a program? We haven't even been able to put an initial plan together,” Klein said. “We don't know how many properties are going to be there, we don't know what streets are going to be there ... we're in the aftermath of a disaster. The village may have had money two years ago to pay for a study like that.”

But the town maintained there are some committed funds for bills down the line.

Zack Klein argues Winslow won't be able to tackle any of its larger funding issues for the move until it's clear the move is legal. (Photo by Christina Stella, NET News)

“If the statute allowed us to do what we were going to do, we're right on pace with where we wanted to be. We have the donations that we need, the engineer, we're waiting on some financing to come through for that to make that work,” he said.

By the end of the meeting, citizens and agencies agreed a legal pathway is needed for towns to relocate after a disaster.

Tom Arnsperger, a legislative aide for State Senator Lynn Walz who was present at the meeting, said the senator’s office is working as quickly as possible on possible disaster legislation.

“We're meeting with a lot of different groups to just to get something in the works, because it's not going to be just an issue for Winslow but potentially other villages and cities in the future,” Arnsperger said.

He added the office is hoping to get a vote on the floor this session for the amendment.

While Winslow’s odds of relocating have slimmed, Klein said the fight to protect his hometown isn’t over yet. And even if Winslow isn’t able to save itself, he doesn’t want other communities to suffer because of legal blind spots.

“That's the best thing we can do: just keep fighting, keep working through the processes, try to effect change. Whether it's a change that benefits us, or change that benefits the next community, try to continue fighting the fight for something that should be able to happen.”