AS I SEE IT
By Neal A. Shipman
Watford City’s City Council missed a great opportunity during their regular meeting on June 1 to start the process of bringing some sense of normalcy back to this community that has seen so much change and upheaval over the past five years.
Ever since the “Bakken” exploded five years ago, Watford City has never been the same. Nor will it ever be the same little community that it was before the city was turned upside down by the thousands of new residents who relocated here to start a new life in the oil patch of western North Dakota.
The “Golden Opportunity” that the city council missed was the chance to begin the process to finally eliminate man camps within the city limits.
Watford City’s struggle with man camp, or workforce housing began almost immediately five years ago when thousands of people started pouring into Watford City and McKenzie County. With no apartments or single family housing available to meet the huge demand, Watford City’s City Council decided the best course of action to solve the housing crisis was to allow for workforce housing within the city limits by granting Conditional Use Permits. The idea at the time was that by granting those permits, the city could accommodate the housing needs of the new residents on a short-term basis.
It was a great plan. While maybe it was not the best housing in the world, workers could at least find a place to lay their heads down at night. And as time went by, through an annual review of those Conditional Use Permits, the city got better and better at requiring the owners of the man camps to make improvements to their facilities.
The logic of the city council was that because the Conditional Use Permits were temporary and subject to an annual renewal, as well as being a conditional use of an existing zoning regulation, those permits could be terminated easily.
Like I said, it was a great plan. The city believed that as permanent apartments and other housing was built, the man camps within the city limits would go away.
But the “fly in the ointment” of that original concept seems to be that today some of the city council members have seemingly forgotten that the man camps were supposed to be a temporary solution to the housing dilemma faced five years ago.
And from the outcry from some of the man camp owners during the council’s June 1 meeting, it appears that they believe that their Conditional Use Permits are now theirs to have into perpetuity. And that somehow, it is unfair for the city council to now want to have the use on their property to be returned to how it was initially zoned.
I can sympathize with the owners of those workforce housing areas. They responded to a need to provide housing in the community. But in doing so, they knowingly accepted the restrictions that the city imposed on them and understood the risk of running a business on a Conditional Use Permit that had a chance of not being renewed.
Do we still need to have man camp or workforce housing in Watford City? Probably. Even though there has been a lot of new permanent housing built in this community over the past two years, we still are short of affordable housing. And while rents have come down in the past six months, affordable housing is still in short supply.
But even with that caveat, the city council needs to begin the process of eliminating all the existing man camps from within the city limits. They had their chance on June 1 to start the process of working with the owners of these housing units and transitioning these areas into something that is complaint with city zoning.
Fortunately, not all is lost. The city council didn’t have to make a decision at its June 1 meeting. And the council doesn’t have to make it at the July meeting either.
But the bottom line is that man camps within the city limits need to go away. If they can be replaced by apartments, trailer courts, or other businesses, the city will be better served.