The inside of a freshly-opened man camp room. (Williston Herald File Photo)

WILLISTON — City Commissioners approved a measure Tuesday night that would sunset crew camps July 1, 2016 — sort of. They left open the door open to make changes based on commissioner concerns, market forces and other factors.

The motion, made by Commissioner Tate Cymbaluk, came after an hour or more of public discussion amongst commissioners about all the issues surrounding worker housing before a standing-room-only crowd in the city chambers.

Although there in force, attendees had no spot on the agenda to speak, unless commissioners had a specific question for a stakeholder among them.

“This is a public meeting, not a public hearing,” Mayor Howard Klug said. “So if we take any comments from the audience it will be by commissioners looking for information or by the chairman, deciding how we will handle this issue.”

Klug said prior to this point he had put together an ad hoc committee to study the issue. That committee had closed door meetings with each of four different groups, all of which have a multi-million dollar stake in the crew camp issue. Those four groups included hotel operators, apartment and housing developers, the oil industry and the crew camp operators themselves, which include Target Logistics.

These meetings were not open to the public, thus no more than two commissioners could sit in on them, otherwise the meetings would have needed to be open to the public.

Cymbaluk’s motion reads in full:

To amend a necessary zoning amendment with a sunset clause, including the occupancy, ending July 1, 2016. And all structures removed and land to be reclaimed no later than Sept. 1, 2016, with resolution 13-167 (A-J) with requirements to be inserted to the zoning amendment.

And all crew camp housing/temporary housing/workforce housing must meet the criteria, apply for SPU/CUP with the city of Williston and execute an agreement prepared by the city of Williston Attorney acknowledging and accepting the termination date of occupancy date, removal and reclamation date. If failed to apply, meet criteria and sign all documents relating to such prior to year end 2015, the SPU/CUP is null and void and will be terminated Dec. 31, 2015, which means all buildings must be vacated with no occupancy all structures removed and land reclaimed prior to May 2016.

The motion was seconded by Brad Bekkedahl for discussion.

“I need more explanation,” Bekkedahl said. “That was a long motion. Are you saying in the motion that if they don’t agree to the terms of compliance where their permit ends July 2016 their permit is pulled Dec. 31? And that the permit end date for those who comply moves to July 1, 2016?”

“That is correct. This has been a really tough decision,” Cymbaluk said, acknowledging acquaintances in the audience who will likely be affected negatively by the move. “It is very difficult not to feel some of their remorse or what have you. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, but this is the first step on where things may go.”

Cymbaluk has an issue, however, with the timing.

“The end of the year in my opinion doesn’t work,” Cymbaluk said. “That is too tough. That is too short of a notice. I know I fully appreciate, they knew their permits ended at the end of the year. But we didn’t give them a decision on whether crew camps would be ended until tonight. I don’t think those employees or employers need to be kicked under the bus and told you have 60 to 90 days and then you are out.”

Bekkedahl said he agreed with the motion in that case, but wanted to know if that would negate continued research into the matter, research that could result in some other motion if it were to make more sense.

In a previous discussion of the crew camps leading up to Cymbaluk’s motion, Bekkedahl expressed disappointment that hotels and apartment units have not lowered rates more in response to vacancies, citing a report by THK Associates on the housing market that suggested apartment rates could remain at current levels without crew camps. The report, about 1.5 inches thick, had just been delivered to the council Monday afternoon and showed 2,841 vacant apartments, 1,248 vacant hotel beds and 2,799 occupied man camp beds.

“I was hoping that once supply exceeded demand that would result in reductions in the rates of units to see service industry affordability in that segment of the housing,” Bekkedahl said. “So I am disappointed to read this last paragraph.”

He believes it indicates apartments and hotels are not anticipating any further reductions in their rates if crew camp beds are eliminated.

Cymbaluk added that he’d called around to about 15 different hotels and said the rates he was quoted as just some guy off the street were still pretty eye-popping. The highest he was quoted was more than $200 per night, plus taxes. And some of the rates for weeknights were higher yet, he said.

“At no time was I told there is no room,” Cymbaluk added. “So they tell us the rates have come down and that they are impacted and willing to reduce — but they never did. Maybe they have today. I haven’t called today. But long story short, that is an issue of concern at that rate and there was a vacancy in every single one of them.”

The city has structured its crew camp permits so that they would pretty much all expire Dec. 31.

Mayor Klug pointed out, if man camp beds are still needed beyond Dec. 31 that the county will still have some. The county’s beds all have their own expiration dates, and those operating 50 beds or more, such as Capitol Lodge, could request a renewal.

Klug said he’d asked three county commissioners if they’d allow more crew camp beds if it seemed a real need was there and was told they would give it serious consideration.

Continued research into those types of considerations by a city committee would not negate the city’s legislative authority to continue modifying the crew camp ordinances as needed, city attorney Jordan Everett told Commissioner Bekkedahl.

“You have the legislative authority to move that date at a future time, if your research would determine it’s warranted,” he said.

“I’m not advocating or promoting that,” Bekkedahl quickly said, “I am just wanting to know what avenues we have. Thanks for the interpretation.”

“I would imagine we can also deal with seasonal or others,” Mayor Howard Klug said. “Whatever we wanted to that we could see that we need down the road. More discussion?”

Commissioner Deanette Piesek suggested the timeframe is still awfully short for crew camp owners.

“That only gives me nine months to plan with really no idea, commissioner Bekkedahl, of how we will act going forward,” she said. “I would say if I”m a crew camp owner, if I owned one, that I don’t feel very safe or secure with that motion. I’d still have some sleepless nights trying to figure out how to move forward.”

Piesek in earlier discussion had said she was going to be on the crew camp side.

“They still serve a purpose for our community,” she said. “Based on the predominant oil industry that brings in two-week workers and two-week-off workers, we may want that to change, but it won’t right now. North Dakota is facing workforce shortages, and all we’re doing is making it harder for people to come work here. It’s going to make it harder for all the industries.”

The suggestion that dates or other factors may change just creates uncertainty, Piesek said.

“You’re saying, well, we’re going to think about it. I think it’s too open-ended,” she said.

Cymbaluk said he wants the committee to sit down next week to hammer out the specifics of executing the motion he proposed, as well as addressing any remaining concerns commissioners have.

“I”m not saying it’s the right or the wrong thing, but I’m not going to agree with what they did last night,” Cymbaluk said, referring to a planning and zoning commission meeting in which members voted unanimously not to renew any crew camp permits that expired Dec. 31.

“If I had placements in the crew camps and knew this motion had passed, if it does pass, it gives me time to do research about housing in the short and long-term,” he continued. “I didn’t think that possible with a Dec. 31 deadline. I think we need to give them that opportunity as well.”

Bekkedahl said the industry is very innovative and can figure out how to house its workers.

“Let’s give them the time to do that, while we consider other options,” he said.

Brostuen agreed any fine-tuning would need to happen quickly, to lift uncertainty from what the commission is doing so that people can make decisions.

“I agree with that,” Klug said. “And that is why we are sitting up here to make these decisions. They are not easy. It depends on what you think about your town sometimes. I’d rather sit here and negotiate with someone who wants to bring retail into my town or build me a convention center or something like that down the road. And we are a board that understands our town. We are looking for permanent situations to our situation, as well as being accommodating to the industry that has helped us build this town.”

Klug said he believes Williston will become the regional center of western North Dakota, and suggested that effort requires permanent structures.

“I do believe we will build more medical facilities,” he said. “We have a plan to move an airport, and a plan to redevelop an airport. Those are all parts of growing this town and with that being said we have a motion and support. What other discussions?”

Hearing none at that point, the mayor called for a roll call. Four commissioners voted in support. Commissioner Piesek, voted against.

Cymbaluk suggested the commission hammer out the final details, including permit fees for the extension, should be the same one that reviewed the crew camp issue in the first place, so as to avoid having to educate a whole new group about the entire matter.

“If Commissioner Bekkedahl could make it, I could be his backup, but that is your decision, that’s just a suggestion, my thought on it,” Cymbaluk said. “Obviously, we need to have that sooner rather than later.”

The mayor said all the relevant parties’ schedules will free up considerably next week or week after.

The mayor directed Senior Planner Donald Kress to set up the meetings and also directed his department to meet with Piesek to discuss her concerns at more length.

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