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Besieged by oil workers, North Dakota town seeks to ban campers

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April 7, 2010: One of the many oil pumps scattered near Stanley, N.D. Oil has brought economic prosperity and scores of oilmen to western North Dakota, but now the Williston City Commission has approved the first reading of an ordinance that would make it illegal to live in a camper within city limits. (AP)

One town smack in the middle of North Dakota's historic oil boom has a plan for getting rid of the "man camps" that have sprung up as laborers pour in: Ban their campers.

Williston, the state's ninth-largest city, is fed up with an estimated 400 RVs that are scattered throughout the city limits and house out-of-state workers who have flocked in to help oil companies tap the massive Bakken formation. The City Commission has introduced an ordinance that would make it illegal to live in a camper within city boundaries. If passed, the law would make living in a home on wheels a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine.

"The people who live here and the ones who pay taxes are developing a lot of frustration with it," Williston Mayor Ward Koeser told FoxNews.com.

Ready jobs at high wages in the oil fields have brought droves of workers to the city, fueling a population increase to 20,000 from just 12,500 in 2008. While the national unemployment rate remains at 8.2 percent, North Dakota's jobless rate was 3.1 percent in February. The so-called “man camps” have popped up in towns throughout the Bakken formation, which holds up to 24 billion barrels of oil according to some estimates.

Koeser acknowledged that the new residents have not driven up the crime rate, but said the young, single men who inhabit the campers are a nuisance.

"We've had some instances where people would urinate in an alley, park on lawns, be disrespectful to neighbors, that sort of thing," he said.

"We cannot stress enough that I would spend 97 percent of time trying to secure someplace to live. If you do that, you're going to find a job within a day up here, provided you can pass a drug test and you've got some skill set.

- Shawn Wenko, assistant director, Williston Economic Development Office

Workers typically pay a landowner by the day or week for permission to park their campers. Once a cluster forms, the neighbors are likely to complain, Koeser said.

"The problem is their backyard is next to someone else's backyard who may have a problem with it," Koeser explained.

The workers aren't living in temporary homes for lack of money. The average weekly salary in Williams County, which includes Williston, is currently $1,300, according to Shawn Wenko, assistant director for the Williston Economic Development Office. The problem is, there just aren't enough homes in Williston, even with an ongoing construction boom.

"We've got record building over the last several years," Wenko told FoxNews.com. "You're talking thousands of apartments, hundreds of homes. It's going to take us a couple of years to catch up [to housing demand]. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel in two, possibly three years when we'll get our hands around this."

A ban on campers won't work unless there's a new place for the workers to go, said Wenko. Three RV parks are opening up in the area this summer, but they won't absorb all the campers now dotting Williston.

Koeser called for compassion, and has even suggested a 60-day grace period if the measure passes. But even that may not be enough time for a suddenly well-heeled oil worker to find a permanent place to put his boots down at the end of a long day. According to Wenko, finding a job in Willistown is easy -- the real work is finding a home.

"We cannot stress enough that I would spend 97 percent of time trying to secure someplace to live," Wenko said. "If you do that, you're going to find a job within a day up here, provided you can pass a drug test and you've got some skill set. Housing is very, very tight here."

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