Williston City Commission Renews Ban on Crew Camps With a Dollop of Hypocrisy

Trygve Olson editorial cartoon Fargo Forum

The City of Williston, epicenter of North Dakota’s now-faded oil boom, has been fighting a war on certain business models. Whether it’s food trucks or crew camp facilities serving workers who rotate into and out of the region, the city has been using the law to eliminate competition with more permanent business models.

Like restaurants and hotels and apartment developments.

The latest salvo in the war came last night when the city commission, in an unanimous vote, re-established a September 1 date for closing down the crew camps. Previously a similar ordinance had been enjoined by a federal judge after crew camp operators sued, but the city commission is convinced they did it legally this time. The litigation is still pending.

But what caught my eye was this report in the Williston Herald noting that the commissioners, rather hypocritically, gave themselves a loophole should oil activity pick back up again and the community face another housing shortage:

Prior to the vote, Mayor Howard Klug read two amendments out loud, both of them additions that were approved during discussion at the measure’s first reading.

One amendment spelled out that the city could reconsider its sunset if a future housing crisis or other situation warranted it. The other clarified that there was no additional fee expected for the period from July 1 to Sept. 1 for those crew camps that had remained open.

It’s hard to imagine how communities like Williston would have made it through the oil boom without crew camps providing housing. The quote above is a tacit acknowledgement of how important the crew camps were. But you have to wonder why the crew camp operators, having been treated this way, would ever want to do business in Williston again?

Or any other business, for that matter. Better to do business in a jurisdiction not governed by such capriciousness.

By the way, there is still plenty of demand for crew camp services. “Nearly 55 percent of North Dakota’s non-resident workers were living in crew camps or employer-provided housing, and a full 80 percent of the transient workforce have said they don’t want to live in North Dakota, according to an NDSU study released earlier this year,” the Herald reports.

The City of Williston thinks it would be good for their community to force these sort of workers into expensive hotel rooms, or into apartment leases they don’t really want.

What’s remarkable is that during the oil boom many, including some of Williston’s leaders, defended sky-high apartment rents and hotel rates by arguing that these prices were dictated by the free market. And they were right.

But now when crew camps are competing with apartment landlords and hotel operators in a dwindling market for housing the city commission throws the free market under the bus.

That’s ridiculous.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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