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Pace of construction in Oil Patch quickens: Officials in Williston, Dickinson keeping up with demand

Carlos Guerrero, Nevada, drills tight a door on a home being built in Gladstone on Friday morning. BP Construction owner Tyler Mason, Dickinson, will live with his family in the six-bedroom home. The home is one of four new homes on the west side of Gladstone. Gladstone is among cities in western North Dakota seeing an unprecedented housing boom that came along with an oil boom. Williston and Williams County building departments have had to increase staff to keep up with intense construction.

WILLISTON -- When the Williston Building Department receives a delivery of new plans to review, they joke with the delivery driver to take them back.

The department is trying to keep up as it's on track to break last year's record of 929 building permits totaling nearly $358 million.

At the end of September, the department had already approved 856 permits totaling nearly $288 million.

"Now we're getting bombarded because it's fall and everyone wants to start work before it freezes," said Kelly Aberle, office manager and plans examiner for the Williston Building Department. "It gets overwhelming at times."

It takes four to six weeks for the city to complete commercial plan reviews, and about three to four weeks for residential projects, Aberle said.

"We try to get them out as fast as we can," Aberle said. "Some days you wonder when it's going to stop."

The office has seven workers now, compared with three employees three years ago, she said. They plan to add more staff, but they're already running out of space in the office they moved into two years ago.

"I think for the most part we have a great handle on making sure things are being done properly and to code," Aberle said.

Dickinson has seen requests increase as well. According to the latest statistics available from the city, there have been 494 new building permits for housing this year, compared with 255 building permits for all of 2011. Of the 494 permits, 418 of those are for single-family structures -- in 2011, there were 137 for the whole year.

As a former contractor for 28 years in the Dickinson area, Joe Dodd said he's seen numerous examples of shoddy work performed on new construction in Dickinson since the oil boom.

"The inspectors are doing their job as well as they can," Dodd said. "It's these other contractors that are coming in from out of state that are giving inspectors the grief."

Dodd said he's speaking out about construction problems in Dickinson because he wants it to get better.

Williams County also is seeing an intense pace of construction. Building inspector Jim Horton projects the county will exceed 600 building permits this year. Last year, the county approved more than 400, he said.

Horton drove 962 miles in one week recently to complete building inspections in the county, including the cities of Tioga and Ray.

"That's about average," Horton said.

Horton, who moved to Williams County a little more than a year ago from Wisconsin, was the only inspector for his first seven months on the job. Now the county has a second inspector, but could still use a plan reviewer and two more inspectors, Horton said.

"We can't hire any until we get housing for them," he said.

Horton may get some relief in Tioga, where Mayor Nathan Germundson said the city plans to start doing its own inspections. The city had been contracting with Williams County for building inspections, but Germundson said contractors have complained that it's too difficult to get them scheduled.

It takes a minimum of three days to schedule an inspection, which causes some contractors to complain, Horton said.

"There's only two of us and we're trying to cover a lot of ground," Horton said. "If it was up to me I'd like to get to everybody within a couple hours of when they call."

Horton said the majority of construction work is meeting or exceeding code.

"The quality of 90 percent is good," Horton said. "There are some that we've got to watch and we catch them."

The most common reason a contractor fails an inspection is for not having a building permit at the construction site. The largest fine he's issued was $461,000 to a crew camp that put in a camp without a building permit, Horton said.

Horton projects construction to continue at this pace for five years.

Aberle said the dollar amounts of projects may level off as many major oil companies complete building expansions. But she expects her office to stay busy.

"The way they talk, it sounds like it's continual growth," Aberle said.

Sid Pranke, The Dickinson Press, contributed to this report.