- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

WATFORD CITY, N.D. (AP) - Watford City tourism director Doug Bolken’s favorite ad is of a cowboy eating sushi at the new Japanese steakhouse in this western oil boom town.

For him, it’s a perfect illustration of the never-ending and amazing evolution of the oil patch.

There is another evolution going on in Watford City these days - one that may also extend countywide - that is inciting far stronger emotions than a hankering for raw fish wrapped in seaweed.

This evolution would eventually end the man camp-style RV parks in city limits as a way to boost its permanent population, the Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1GtrF1e ) reported.

There are approximately 100 such temporary workforce units in town, allowed under about 10 conditional-use permits.

The permit holders were recently sent notice that their permits would be reviewed this year, and then phased out.

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Mayor Brent Sanford said the timing is almost right. About 1,500 apartment and duplex units are on line or under construction in town and rental rates are dropping, with some one-bedroom units at $1,600 a month, down from $2,000 to $2,400 or more.

Circumstances have changed in the five years since temporary housing was critical to handling the inflow, he said.

“We will build our future on properly zoned housing developments, not these,” Sanford said.

Bolken, who’s also on the city council, says it may be the right idea, but not the right time. Even though oil development is slowed and many workers have left, the community has several huge construction projects in the works, including a new hospital, events center and high school, besides commercial buildings and residential subdivisions.

Those contractors also need affordable worker housing.

“We’re not quite in the sweet spot,” Bolken said.

The issue came up at last week’s city meeting, and the council agreed to let the situation stand through the summer. He said some permit holders showed up looking for a fight, but they all needed a reminder that their conditional permits are for temporary housing, something easier said than done.

“We all (city council) felt like there’re not enough apartments at reasonable rates. Some might say we’re kicking the can down the street, but they did get a letter that they are on notice. A transition to permanent housing is better for community roots,” Bolken said.

Bolken is also a member of the planning and zoning board for McKenzie County, which has thousands of man camp units - there is no precise count because the county didn’t adopt zoning or a conditional-use permit system until late in the game - with the heaviest concentration around Watford City.

The county will review its temporary housing permits at the end of the year and will quit issuing any new ones at the same time, according to Bolken.

“The county will come to a full stop. We do not need any more,” he said.

Sanford said the city can only affect hundreds of temporary housing situations, while the county can affect thousands.

For that reason, he said he hopes the county will get on board with the goal of evolving this boom county from workers in temporary units to men and families in apartments and family homes.

“I hope it becomes a high priority,” he said.

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Stan Sutherland, in a working man’s denim blues and driving a pickup, lives in a small fifth-wheeler in BBR RV Camp on the east side of Watford City.

He’s an electrician for Pyramid Electrical Contractors, and, like a lot of guys in the oil patch, he left his home and family two years ago for the good pay and steady work.

He doesn’t love living in a row of small RVs, all fronted by big pickups. But the $700 lot rent, with water, sewer and electric included, means he can juggle the expense of his life in the patch and his family’s life in Wisconsin.

Sutherland would like to get out of the camper because he’s tired of living in survival mode in extreme winter cold.

On the other hand, even if some one-bedroom apartments are now at $1,600, down from $2,000 or more, that’s still too high, he said. Prairie Properties, which handles leases for several apartment developments in Watford City, is listing one-bedroom units at $1,800 to $1,900 for a 12-month lease. That’s based on a call to the number listed on a banner ad hanging off the side of one of the complexes.

“At $1,200 a month, a lot of us would (make the switch). But when they’re in the $2,000 range, then show me the ocean. I didn’t come to this point just to fork over my hard-earned money out to a builder. I feel like we’re being played,” Sutherland said.

Billie Morken, whose family owns some of the 36 spaces in the RV park and manages the operation for the other lot owners, said she thinks it’s wrong that temporary housing is being targeted just because apartment investors need tenants.

It is hard to gauge occupancy in such a dynamic environment, though Watford City’s building inspector Steve Williams said he recently inspected one 42-plex building - one of six in a development project - that has only four tenants.

Williams says he believes that, as supply continues to outpace demand, housing will regulate itself.

“The system will slowly and fairly eliminate temporary housing,” he said.

But Morken said she doesn’t believe the need for temporary affordable housing has run its course.

“These people that are renting from us have a place back home,” said Morken, suggesting that for these tenants, there is no such thing as permanent.

“Now they (city) want to change things and have people living in a permanent situation. There is no permanent situation. A lot of these guys come in, do the job and leave,” Morken said.

The RV park doesn’t make a lot of money - about $40,000 annually after expenses - but it provides an important service for workers and a bit of income for the owners, three of whom are on Social Security, according to Morken.

“We’re hoping for the best. I think, if the city changes this, it will be sad. This is a good service for people,” she said.

Ray Morken, her father-in-law, said he thinks even $700 a month is outrageous, but says the park’s electricity bill is huge and, overall, it’s a good deal for the workers.

“We turn down people every day. This is necessary for a while, and, when it’s ready, it will go away. They (city) don’t need to tell us. These people don’t want to be here. If rent goes down, I’m sure they would love an apartment,” he said.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

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