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Port: Williston's ban on 'man camps' is shameful

MINOT, N.D. -- Imagine the market for motor vehicles in a certain town. Customers have a variety of vehicle needs, so different sorts of businesses have sprung up to serve them.

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Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. -- Imagine the market for motor vehicles in a certain town. Customers have a variety of vehicle needs, so different sorts of businesses have sprung up to serve them.

Some sell vehicles. Some lease. Others rent.

Now imagine the market for vehicles craters. Demand plunges.

Would it be right to outlaw the businesses renting vehicles to drive up business for those selling and leasing?

I think most of us would think that absurd. Yet it is exactly what’s happening in Williston, the epicenter of the now fading Bakken oil boom, only instead of cars we’re talking about housing.

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Those who rushed to Williston to take advantage of the oil boom housing market - who not so long ago were making national headlines by charging rents rivaling what one might find in Manhattan - are now facing a vacancy problem.

They want to ban so-called ‘man camps’ to address it.

The camps, which their owners like to describe as workforce housing, are essentially dormitories serving workers who spend enough time in the Oil Patch to make a hotel room impractical but not enough time to justify an apartment lease or a mortgage.

Williston’s developers think these workers can be forced to shore up demand for apartments and motel rooms.

“A survey in late 2015 showed that Williston apartment buildings were about 68 percent full and rents have dropped by more than 40 percent,” Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple wrote this last week .

Doing the bidding of the developers, the city of Williston passed Ordinance 1026 on November 24 . It will close crew camps there on July 1, 2016.

Crew camp operators and the workers they serve are afraid other Oil Patch communities will follow Williston’s lead. Last week, they backed a compromise brought to the city commission by commissioners Deanette Piesik and Brad Bekkedahl (who is also a Republican 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 offer. It would have banned facilities with fewer than 50 beds.

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That’s still not great. 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 consideration.

Mayor Howard Klug as well as commissioners Chris Brostuen and Tate Cymbaluk voted against it, making the final vote 3-2.

In case you think I’m hatching some sort of conspiracy theory about the motivation for banning crew camps, listen to what the opponents are actually saying.

“Why are we killing the permanent investors so the man camps can continue to go?” Tom Rolfstad, Williston’s former economic development director who was speaking for private developer interests, told the city commission . “We can let the temporary stuff go to some other town or some other county.”

In other words, Rolfstad is saying he wants the competition banned.

That’s disappointing. In fact, it’s embarrassing for the city of Williston.

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The downturn in the Oil Patch housing market is tough medicine for developers. It’s also how the market works.

I didn’t begrudge these landlords their sky-high rents back at the peak of the oil boom. If they had property which could command that sort of rent, good for them.

But now that the housing market has turned, these landlords shouldn’t get to use the regulatory power of government to manipulate the marketplace in their favor.

Port, founder of sayanythingblog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator.

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