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North Dakota's Oil Boomtowns Struggle With Massive Population Growth

Oil Boom

First Posted: 01/27/2012 10:29 am Updated: 01/27/2012 1:32 pm

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — In the last two years, Williston school superintendent Viola LaFontaine has had to manage an influx of 480 new students brought by the region's oil boom, an increase of 22 percent. Next year, she's planning for another 1,200.

"In the past two years, we've actually grown pretty much a whole elementary school," LaFontaine said.

Until recently, Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford didn't worry about zoning or city planning. The city didn't have a building inspector or city planner.

Now, he's overseeing a building frenzy in the McKenzie County community, which is expected to grow from 1,744 — the last official census count — to more than 7,500.

"We're speaking a language we've never heard of in Watford City, because there weren't homes built there for 25 years," Sanford said. "We're talking about developer agreements and on- and off-site improvements ...We hadn't heard of this stuff."

The city used to have zero registered sex offenders, Sanford said. Now, it has 28.

"We're not built to deal with that kind of impact," he said.

LaFontaine and Sanford were among a number of city, county and school officials who spoke to the North Dakota Legislature's interim energy committee on Thursday, asking lawmakers to support more state aid for western North Dakota's oil-producing region.

State laws that give a slice of oil revenues to local governments, and provide them with a share of state sales tax collections, are not adequate to meet the mushrooming demands for building new streets, sewer lines, water treatment facilities and classrooms, they said.

Housing is in such demand, said Shawn Kessel, Dickinson's city administrator, that his uncle, Todd Lynch, who owns a four-bedroom home in Dickinson, sleeps in one bedroom and rents out the other three at $800 a month each.

City sanitation truck drivers have been recruited while on their garbage routes because oil companies prize employees who are licensed to drive commercial trucks, Kessel said.

Although the census counted Dickinson's population at about 18,000, Kessel believes the city is serving about 22,000 people. North Dakota State University has estimated the city's population will grow to 35,000 people within four years, Kessel said.

"We're going to have to basically pick up the city of Mandan and drop it into the city of Dickinson, and do it in four to five years," he said. "That means adding all the roads, all the fire, all the police, and everything else."

The committee's chairman, Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who is the Senate's Republican majority leader, said the panel will present suggestions to the 2013 Legislature for providing more aid to local governments.

The Legislature took aggressive steps last year to funnel more state support for western North Dakota's public works, but the demand is greater, Wardner said. He said the panel would study ways to divert a larger share of a state oil production tax to local governments.

In the last five years, North Dakota's oil production has risen from 115,370 barrels daily to 509,374, which is greater than Ecuador, a South American OPEC country.

More than 6,000 wells are operating in western North Dakota, compared to 3,415 five years ago. North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources expects the total to rise past 20,000 in the next 10 to 20 years.

Brad Bekkedahl, a Williston city commissioner, said that although the city's population of more than 14,000 is growing rapidly, almost 1,000 longtime residents have left in the last two years, fed up with the city's newly acquired crowding and traffic problems.

"Those are the people that built our churches, went to our PTAs. They built our community. It's tough to lose those people," Bekkedahl said. "We're getting more back in, but we're losing our core."

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Filed by Maxwell Strachan  |