November 30, 2011

County residents divided on zoning

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

When it comes to seeing the need for the McKenzie County Commissioners to enact county-wide land use planning and zoning, county residents appear to be deeply divided.
And the line which is dividing residents is directly related to the impact they are experiencing from the onslaught of oil development. County residents, who are experiencing the brunt of the development as oilfield-related companies purchase farmland for man camps, truck yards or offices, are strongly in favor of the county commissioners enacting zoning regulations. On the other hand, those county residents who have not been impacted so far by the energy development are opposed to zoning.
It is that dividing line as well as the common belief by the commissioners that the general public does not fully understand the principles of land use planning and zoning that led to a series of informational meetings last week in Keene, Grassy Butte and Watford City.
“What we are seeing is that some townships are moving forward with creating zoning ordinances because there is no zoning done on the county level,” stated Roger Chinn, chairman of the McKenzie County Commissioners. “They are trying to get control of what is happening because of the rapid growth of the oil industry.”
At the county level, Chinn stated the county commissioners are trying to deal with road concerns, crew camp requests, housing development and the demand for water.
“All of these areas are being pushed to the max,” stated Chinn.
With most county residents lacking information on exactly what land use planning and zoning is and what it can and can’t do, the county commissioners invited Rod Landblom and Gene Buresh of the Roosevelt-Custer Regional Council of Dickinson to present basic information on what the process does to concerned residents.
“Land use planning serves as a basis for local decision-making,” stated Landblom. “It looks at where you are, what you want, and then provides a means of getting there.”
One of the goals of land use planning is to minimize the conflicts between landowners, according to Landblom. But the process is not simple and not without problems.
“What happens when you have a welding shop that operates late at night that sets up shop next to a $300,000 residence?” asked Landblom. “Or how do you enact and enforce performance bonds to ensure that the county isn’t holding the bag for cleanup costs if the boom busts or the developer leaves?”
While a land use plan provides a general guideline for how development occurs within a county, it is the zoning ordinances which provide the tools to solve problems.
“Zoning deals with what uses can occur on the land, not who owns the land,” stated Buresh.
According to Buresh, in most counties, all land is zoned as agricultural unless it is designated for some other use, such as residential, commercial, recreational or any other classification that the county wants to designate.
“Agricultural land does not have any zoning requirements,” stated Buresh. “Therefore, owners of agriculture land can do what they want, and build any buildings or fences that they need so long as those improvements are agriculturally-based.”
It is as the county zoning board, which is a nine-member board appointed by the county commissioners,  develops the ordinances for all the other zoning districts in the county that development begins to become regulated.
“Within each district, you can have developments that are permitted,” stated Buresh. “If those uses are not specifically listed as a permissible use, then the developer can either request a conditional use permit or move their project to a district  where that type of activity is permitted.”
As an example, according to Buresh, zoning can control the placement of offensive uses such as adult entertainment and junkyards, by restricting those activities to specific zoning districts.
But zoning, according to Buresh, will not be an answer to all energy-related development occurring within the county.
“There is very little that the county can do in the way of zoning to regulate the oil industry,” stated Buresh. “The standards regulating oil wells, etc., are set by the North Dakota Industrial Commission.”
But if the county commissioners and county residents want to have some control over the proliferation of crew camps or other forms of temporary housing, then developing a land use plan and implementing zoning ordinances may be an answer.
And the subject of man camps took center stage at Watford City’s meeting on Nov. 23.
“Right now, I’m getting between 70 and 80 phone calls a week from developers who want to build temporary housing units in McKenzie County,” stated Gene Veeder, McKenzie County Job Development Authority executive director. “Most of those calls are coming to my office because all of the counties neighboring us have put moratoriums on man camps. We’ve become the dumping ground for people who want to make a quick buck.”
According to Veeder, there are an estimated 6,500 people living in temporary housing units within a five- mile radius of Watford City.
And there is probably more temporary housing units coming into McKenzie County to meet the growing demand.
“I’m guessing the county’s population is now around 10,000 people,” stated Commissioner Dale Patten. “And I’ve heard it could grow to 30,000. When you look at tripling the population, you know that there are going to be more problems.”
Zoning, according to Buresh, is the key to controlling new man camps.
“While all existing man camps will be grandfathered into any zoning ordinance you create,” stated Buresh, “you can stop future use by restricting them into a specific land use district or by trying to cluster the use into one area.”
In addition, according to Buresh, following the passage of HB1144 by the North Dakota Legislature, state political subdivisions can now charge a permit fee for temporary housing units.
“Other political subdivisions around McKenzie County are currently charging up to $400 per unit per year or up to $1.50 per square foot for temporary housing units,” stated Diedre Berquist, McKenzie County Tax Equalization director. “They use the permit fees to help recover a portion of the cost of providing law and emergency services, as well as road maintenance, to those units.”
“The Legislature enacted the permitting process to provide fees to cover the cost of providing services to the temporary housing units,” stated David Drovdal, District 39 legislator. “It was not to say ‘no’ to them.”
While charging permit fees may be one way for the county and cities in McKenzie County to recover a portion of the money they are spending in servicing man camps, Brent Sanford, Watford City’s mayor, wants to see zoning at the county level.
“We’ve got to have zoning,” stated Sanford. “Our town, our hospital, the police and sheriff departments and the ambulance service can’t take this pounding any longer.”
According to Sanford, the city of Watford City imposed a moratorium on man camps within the city limits and within its one-mile Extraterritorial Zone in an effort to stop the proliferation of man camps.
“We have to zone to stop it,” stated Sanford. “We can’t regulate it any other way.”