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Heavy agendas for western ND officials

Planning and zoning officials in western North Dakota are taking on a heavier load while meetings attract more permits and people, officials said Wednesday.

"We're probably close to doubling what our agenda items were from this time last year," said Dickinson City Planner Ed Courton. "We're no longer a small, rural agricultural area. We have a lot of intensive development."

City and county planning and zoning commissions meetings have drawn big crowds. Depending on what is on the agenda, meeting rooms have allowed standing room only.

The last two Dickinson Planning and Zoning Commission meetings have lasted more than six hours, and it appears the April 18 meeting will be another long one, Courton said.

"Right now our agenda items are heavier," he said. "We still haven't got our full agenda yet ... but time-table items we have more than last month."

Courton added there is a larger demand for building in the area due to an oil boom in western North Dakota. Construction in Dickinson has continued, this year's permits valued at $22.32 million as of February, more than three times the amount at the same time last year.

As of the end of March, Dickinson has issued 79 building permits. Last year at this time it had issue 10. Billings County had 42 permit applications, Zoning Director Stacey Swanson said, adding it had 35 as of Wednesday.

Billings County Planning and Zoning commissioners met three times in 2008, five times in 2009 and eight in 2010. Since May, they have met at least once every month. Meetings last a couple hours on average, and taking an hour to discuss a permit isn't unusual, Swanson added.

"I think in the past if zoning meetings lasted an hour ... that was a lot of time," she said. "When the crew housing facility in Fryburg was going through zoning, that meeting lasted until after courthouse hours were up."

The Dunn County Planning and Zoning Commission has a cap of 12 agenda items per meeting, said Sandy Rohde, Dunn County planning and zoning code administrator. The commission will also have two meetings a month.

"The soonest an applicant can get on the agenda right now is the end of May or beginning of June," she said. "Our agendas are filled up that far already."

More people are coming to the meetings because there are more permits to discuss, Courton and Rohde said.

Like other county officials, Swanson has "more than one hat to wear." She is also the Billings County tax director and the 911 coordinator.

The increased load has affected staff and planning officials, often taking an entire day out of the work week to listen to requests.

"By having to spend more time on the zoning, we fall behind on the other duties we have to do," said Diane Brines, Stark County zoning administrator, tax equalization director and flood plain management administrator.

In the year that Courton has been here, counties have taken on staff and have changed or developed ordinances for planning, even if they didn't have it before.

"All the small jurisdictions and counties are coming to the realization that they need to plan for the future and address the current problems that are a positive for development but have negative impacts if not addressed properly," he said.

He anticipated counties and cities may have to hire more staff, and each district will have to figure out a way to pay for those employees.

"Every time you go to Dickinson, you see something new pop up," Swanson said. "Will we get that busy? I hope not, but I'm sure we're not going to be immune to it either."