Williston City Leaders Take A Shameful Stand Against "Man Camps"

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In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged the author invented something called the “anti-dog-eat-dog” rule. In the story, the characters create it to stop “destructive competition” between railroad companies. Rand intended the law to be a satire of companies which seek to maintain their market share not by managing their businesses well but by getting the government to outlaw their competition.

Something very similar to Rand’s fictional law is playing out in Williston right now.

With the oil boom over the market for housing in that city has shrunk. Now developers who built homes to sell and apartments to lease are in trouble. To address the problem, they want to drive some of their competition out of town.

That competition being the “man camps” (or crew camps, as their operators prefer) which provide housing targeted to workers who are in the area on a limited basis and need a housing option which is less expensive than renting a hotel room but less permanent than leasing an apartment or signing up for a mortgage.

Doing the bidding of these developers, the City of Williston passed Ordinance 1026 passed on November 24th. It will close crew camps within Williston’s jurisdiction on July 1 of 2016. Crew camp operators and the energy/construction industry interests they serve are afraid that other oil patch communities will follow Williston’s lead.

Last night a compromise was brought to the city commission with the support of commissioners Deanette Piesik and Brad Bekkedahl (who is also a state lawmaker). Ordinance 1038 would have postponed the sunset on crew camps until 2019 while mandating a 50 percent reduction in the number of beds they have available. It would have banned entirely camps that have less than 50 units.

That’s still not great. It seems to me that crew camps should go away when there’s no longer a sufficient market for them, but whatever. It’s better than the ban which commences later this summer.

But even that compromise wouldn’t be tolerated by the majority on the city commission who are serving as lackeys to the developers. After an overflow crowd of 200 attended the meeting and provided hours of public comment the commissioners killed the ordinance after about three seconds of debate. Mayor Howard Klug as well as commissioners Chris Brostuen and Tate Cymbaluk voted against it.

And just in case you think I’m blowing smoke about the justification for this being a desire to ban competition, just listen to the arguments against the crew camps. They aren’t talking about safety issues or zoning issues or crime issues. The developer proponents of banning crew camps are talking about the deleterious impact the camps have on their bottom line:

But investors in Williston hotels and apartment buildings, warning of possible foreclosures, asked commissioners to keep the July 1 sunset date they approved in November.

“Why are we killing the permanent investors so the man camps can continue to go?” said Tom Rolfstad, Williston’s retired economic development director who was asked to speak by private investors. “We can let the temporary stuff go to some other town or some other county.” …

“The buildings are emptying out and the rates have plummeted. We are all on the verge of bankruptcy,” Kent Roers, owner of Roers Investments in Long Lake, Minn., wrote to commissioners.

Cry me a river, right?

These are the same people who were charging sky-high rents at the peak of the oil boom when housing was in short supply. Rents which would have been much higher had the crew camps not been operating to supply demand.

Is it the fault of the crew camp operators that these developers overbuilt? Should we punish one group of companies because another group of companies made a mistake?

There is this obsession in Williston with pushing everyone into permanent housing like apartments or motels, based on the belief that workers living in that sort of housing will be more likely to become permanent residents. Which is ridiculous. A large percentage of the workers who came to Williston for the oil boom were never, ever going to be permanent residents.

Temporary housing was the right solution for those workers. Banning this sort of temporary housing is ludicrous.

What happened in Williston last night is shameful.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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