No camp for Fryburg: Billings Co. shoots down lodging facility project for closed school

MEDORA -- A proposal to build a worker housing development in Fryburg was denied Tuesday. The Billings County Commission voted 2-1 against the proposed $18 million, 238-bed development, which would have been constructed at the site of the old Fry...

Press Photo by Andrew Brown Morgan Chase Management officials on Tuesday in Medora listen to the Billings County Commission discuss the plan to build a mancamp in Fryburg.

MEDORA - A proposal to build a worker housing development in Fryburg was denied Tuesday.
The Billings County Commission voted 2-1 against the proposed $18 million, 238-bed development, which would have been constructed at the site of the old Fryburg school.
The commission’s decision follows multiple attempts, spanning three and a half years, to construct worker housing in the small community and comes less than a month after the Billings County Zoning Board recommended approval for the latest design.
While the prospective developers with Morgan Chase Management, based in Jackson, Miss., were hopeful that their latest, scaled-down plan would meet the three-member commission’s expectations, many residents from Fryburg and the surrounding area were adamantly opposed to the idea of hundreds of oilfield workers living in close proximity to their homes.
In the past year, Morgan Chase has revised their original plans dramatically, dropping the number of rooms from 318 to 238 rooms, adding security and fire evacuation plans and adopting strict drug and alcohol policies.
But many of the surrounding landowners have argued that the in-house rules and security would do nothing to ensure that their families and homes would be protected.
“I don’t think it’s right for Fryburg,” said Ben Procive, whose property would have been surrounded by parking lots for the project.
Both the developers and the local landowners resistant to the plan presented the commission with petitions signed by people for and against the plan. The petition in favor of the worker housing project had 22 signatures. The petition against the project garnered 125.
In the end, the commission members voted to deny the proposed project largely because they did not feel that the worker housing meshed well with the surrounding community.
“I have been against this project since the day the property was bought,” Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said. “I don’t think there’s one positive thing it brings to our county.”
Before the commission made its decision, residents, developers and county officials discussed numerous aspects of the plan - building codes, a proposed on-site wastewater treatment facility , the lack of law enforcement in the area and the long-term need for temporary worker housing in Billings County.
“The longevity of the project is a main concern for myself,” said Stacey Swanson, the Billings County zoning inspector.
The school was closed in 2000 as a result of dwindling numbers. Swanson said the market for temporary housing and the demographics of Fryburg have changed since it was sold to Louisiana-based Energy Resources Group in 2011. She said the number of residents and young families living in Fryburg has grown.
“From 2011 to now, the dynamic of the area has changed,” Swanson said, adding that she believed the current plan for the project was “overbuilding” for the needs of the area.
In response to those concerns, Richard Brown, the project manager for Morgan Chase Management, said the size of the worker housing project was needed to make the development economically feasible.
“The size of the development is important because we have money to make back,” Brown said.
Brown also said that Morgan Chase was trying to avoid labeling the facility as a man camp, which has been depicted as a negative title for worker housing. He described the proposed project as a “lodging campus,” which included more comforts and conveniences than other worker housing developments in North Dakota.
But throughout the meeting, Brown and the other members of Morgan Chase Management kept running up against more opposition, including Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel, who said he did not have enough deputies to deal with a large influx of oilfield workers in Fryburg.
“We do not have the manpower. We will not have control if a facility that size goes in,” Rummel said. “We only have five people.”
While Arthaud said he felt bad for the developers, who had invested a substantial amount of time and money into the plan, he said the original developer, Energy Resources CEO Marc Barra, knew the project would have to go through a public approval process. Energy Resources intended to transform the school into a 200-unit lodging facility, but the plans never came to fruition.
“I just don’t see it as a compatible use for the area,” Arthaud said. “We’ve been strict in the past, and our county is better off for it.”

Brown is a regional reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact him at 701-456-1206 and follow him on Twitter at Andy_Ed_Brown.

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