AS I SEE IT
By Neal A. Shipman
The McKenzie County Commissioners have long taken the position of not wanting to stand in the way of personal rights when it comes to what individuals can or can’t do with their property. While the commissioners’ intentions in that regard have been noble, that hesitancy on their part to impose rules and regulations on landowners or to limit how they want to develop their land is one of the reasons why McKenzie County was the last county in North Dakota to enact zoning ordinances.
So it probably should not have come as any great surprise when last week that hesitancy was apparent when the commissioners took no action on a request by Dale Patten for the county to consider imposing a six-month moratorium on new man camps.
Dale Patten, for those who may not know, retired from the county commission last year and was witness to virtually all of the rapid changes that the development of the Bakken and Three Forks formations have brought to McKenzie County. And as a commissioner, he saw both the good and the bad sides of the development, especially when it came to the proliferation of man camps in the county.
So when Patten petitioned the county commissioners to stop issuing any more conditional use permits and building permits related to new temporary housing applications, as well as permits for the expansion of existing temporary housing projects for the next six months, he knew of the problems and issues that more man camps would raise.
And Patten is right on a lot of the issues associated with man camps.
First, while man camps have a place in meeting the temporary housing shortage, they should not be the sole form of housing that is going up in the county. And without a doubt, the continued expansion of temporary housing units will limit the development of permanent housing in the county. As Watford City found out when it imposed its ban on temporary housing within the city limits, developers suddenly came up with plans to build more suitable and permanent housing in the form of apartments and homes.
Second, Patten rightly contends that much of the existing temporary housing facilities are non-compliant with county zoning ordinances. But since they have been ‘grand-fathered’ into the county’s zoning ordinances, there is nothing that the county can do about them for the present time.
But it is Patten’s final two reasons in asking for the moratorium that really point to the crux of the problem by the commission adding more and more man camps across the county’s landscape.
And those two reasons are how these facilities are taxing existing county resources when it comes to providing services, such as water, sewer, roads and law enforcement; and more importantly, making sure that all of the man camps that are currently operating are meeting state and county health standards.
By best estimate, there are currently 134 man camp type facilities in McKenzie County. But even county officials aren’t sure that that number isn’t too low because they haven’t been able to identify all of them yet. And that number of facilities equates to a whole lot of people (approximately 5,000 to 7,000) who are living in temporary housing.
No one is going to argue with the county commissioners when they say that there needs to be housing for these people.
But, the ultimate questions that need to be asked and then answered are this. “Is it better for these people to be living in campers and sub-standard housing often without water and bathroom facilities?” Or, “Is it better for the county to stop issuing permits for more and more temporary housing facilities and encourage the new developers to come up with plans that will result in more permanent-style housing that will attract not just working men, but families, to this area?”
The idea of the county imposing a six-month moratorium on new man camp facilities has a lot of merit. Taking a short reprieve from further development of these temporary housing facilities, if nothing else, will give the county a chance to get its hands around what is exactly going on. And it will give the county commissioners an opportunity to decide in what direction they want to see the county grow and the role that they see temporary housing meeting in that growth.
In the scope of what is being planned in McKenzie County in the next several years, a six-month moratorium may be just what the county needs.