Stark County development moratorium begins; Dickinson poised to expand zoning dominion by 2 miles
Stark County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a moratorium halting energy development in the county for 9 months, taking effect Monday.
While the new moratorium places a large hurdle in the path forward for Marathon and One Energy’s proposed wind turbine project, the City of Dickinson is considering steps that would see the city assume legal jurisdiction over development at the Marathon Refinery — a by-product of the 2020 Census.
While the city may not extend its regulatory or police powers beyond the city limits without specific legislative authority, under North Dakota Century Code a city may, by ordinance, extend the application of a city's zoning regulations to any section of unincorporated territory within four miles — if the city has a population of 25,000 or more.
According to the 2020 Census, Dickinson achieved this benchmark by 672 people over the benchmark and discussions have already begun in consideration of exercising their authority from the previous two-mile limit to four miles, placing the contentious wind turbine project within its jurisdictions.
Commissioner Carla Arthaud said that Marathon and One Energy have acted in bad faith with the county and its citizens, and is concerned that the city could open a pathway for the project to move forward.
“It’s concerning. We haven’t yet considered wind energy’s potential impacts on health, conservation, waterways, agricultural industry, standard of living, weather conditions and leisure activities. There is sovereign land to consider and the Conditional Use Permit issues. I hope that the city will extend a courtesy with this regard to discuss the matter as joint bodies,” Arthaud said. “At the first meeting Marathon and One Energy said they wanted to be good neighbors. Then they filed a lawsuit against Stark County for the moratorium that was passed at the June meeting; this could have been avoided if Marathon and One Energy would have followed procedure.”
Brian Winningham, city administrator for the City of Dickinson, said that the ETZ discussions by the city have, to this point, centered primarily on the opportunities presented by the potential expansion, tax savings and economic freedom it would provide the area.
“The City of Dickinson is looking into all North Dakota Century authorizations that may benefit our city’s mission to support, ‘Promoting Opportunity.’ One of those ways includes our obligation to consider the best ways to protect city zoning and future land use for all,” Winningham said. “The best way to discuss future ETZ issues is with open public meetings and not in private places when the majority of the public is at risk. We live in a great city and great area. We should look forward to making our future a better place for all.”
The move, when considering the financial impacts for Dickinson, could open the city to increased revenue through a variety of funding avenues. In fiscal year 2018, $1.45 billion in federal funds were allocated to programs in North Dakota based upon resident counts from the 2010 Census and subsequent annual population estimates.
Among the increased funding expected as a result of population growth from the 2020 Census are highway construction, Head Start, Foster Care, SNAP, Low Income Energy Assistance, Special Education and other programming — with approximately $19,100 in federal funds per resident over the next 10 years.
“(We) will continue to address our ETZ options that will benefit the majority of our population, particularly when we can help increase revenues or grant programs to the city in support of services that will keep us from raising taxes, as many cities around the country are forced to do,” Winningham said. “Our plans must include reducing costs to citizens while providing greater services. One of the best ways to increase the quality of a place is to create economic development and make better decisions on land usage. If we can receive federal dollars back to our city because of the Census that tells us we now have more people, so be it. Let us get our federal tax dollars back here locally.”
Winningham added, “I hope people do their own research when considering what an ETZ extension could mean. Although we have not considered particular alternate energy sectors, we must look at future options for economic development that includes all types of industry that will bring revenues to the city and reduce any future need to raise taxes. We are in a good city and a good place to protect our citizens.”
The possibility of expansion of planning and zoning jurisdictions by the city is expected to generate tremendous political backlash as the timing of the ETZ falls during a longstanding Enviro-socio-political conflict regarding Marathon and One Energy’s proposed turbine site. The contentious debate surrounding wind energy has become one of the most divisive subjects in North Dakota’s western counties, garnering heated public meetings and moratoria in response.
Mercer County, who unanimously imposed their own July moratorium on all wind-related projects, set the precedent for other counties on how to draft legally sound moratoriums aimed at preventing the contentious wind turbines.
The new moratorium by Stark County comes after a previous moratorium passed seeking to halt the construction or development of wind turbines within the county — that moratorium faced immediate legal challenges as Marathon and One Energy requested the courts step in to what they claimed was an “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” decision, “not supported by substantial evidence.”
Commissioners, in response to the legal action, immediately rescinded the first moratorium at their July meeting, but directed that the county planning and zoning director draft a new legally sound moratorium in conjunction with the Stark County State Attorney’s Office.
Arthaud’s contention is that Marathon and One Energy have continuously provided false information regarding the project, especially with regards to how they would handle excess energy produced at the proposed site.
“According to their proposal, it says that their energy could be sold off the grid, but they originally said that their energy is not going to get sold off the grid. But then at another meeting, they said it might get sold off the grid if they have extra energy,” Arthaud said. “They’ve said the moratorium was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable and was not supported by substantial evidence and was made in bad faith ... I can turn around and say everything that Marathon did was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and made in bad faith for the citizens of Stark County. And now, it appears that the city could assume jurisdiction for this project.”
The project remains unpopular amongst a vocal segment of the population in Stark County, many of whom argue the proposed development lacks review of the long-term effects that the turbines have on a multitude of quality of life considerations.
Winningham, when asked directly on the topic of the Marathon and One Energy proposed development, said the city would consider all available opportunities as part of the zoning expansion, but that no plans are currently scheduled to discuss the project or consider a joint powers agreement.
“Dickinson has no plans to discuss wind farms,” he said. “The city government has not discussed any joint powers agreement for these issues.”
A gathering of vocal opponents to the project descended on a usually scarcely attended meeting of the Stark County Planning and Zoning meeting in July, as the first public commentary session began on the proposed wind energy project near Patterson Lake.
The overwhelming consensus from residents who took to the podium was for the county to stop the project and reject construction of wind turbines within the county.
Among the vocal opposition to the project, some have taken to circulating petitions and questioning on social media the ethical implications of a recent donation by Marathon to the city.
Mayor Scott Decker announced in August that the Marathon Petroleum Foundation will contribute $200,000 to the city to help fund the long-planned Dickinson Town Square project, located on the corner of First Avenue West and Second Street West, behind the former American Bank Center building.
Responding directly to what some have said could be an ethical concern, Winningham touted transparency in all city matters and said that the city maintains a robust partnership program with many businesses and financial entities.
“I do not see any ethical concerns, but I do understand false narratives. We will always answer any concerns by speaking truthfully... The City of Dickinson has a thriving partnership with businesses and industry, we must always maintain that partnership in order to keep our city great. We welcome local business donations for great projects like our Dickinson Town Square, and if a business can support our town, all the better for our budget to reduce taxes,” Winningham said. “I can’t really commit on hypothetical perceptions, however our city is ethically bound to be transparent and we will never accept anything less than transparent reporting of donations based on the best interests of the city, not a person or business.”
Winningham added, “We live our city values by our actions. The City of Dickinson is an organization that believes in innovation and transparency, fiscal responsibility and integrity, environmental stewardship and safety, leadership and inclusiveness.”