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Published September 26 2012

Forum editorial: Population challenges daunting

If projections are accurate and trends hold, North Dakota’s population will increase faster and reach a level never experienced in the state’s 123-year history. Not only will it be a historic change, it also holds the potential to be as disruptive a culture shock as North Dakotans have ever experienced. After all, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the impacts of oil and gas development on the west’s ranching and farming communities are not universally positive.

The report that has the startling numbers was prepared by North Dakota State University’s Center for Social Research at the request of the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency. The agency and the administration of Gov. Jack Dalrymple wanted to get a handle on the how, why and what of housing needs, specifically in the booming Oil Patch but also all over the state.

Population growth will be greatest in oil country and in cities like Fargo and Bismarck but will not be uniform across the state. As has been the rule for about 40 years, at least 21 mostly rural, non-oil counties will lose population for the next decade. Economies of scale and advancing agriculture technologies have conspired to reduce the number of farmers needed to produce crops. Small, farm-dependent towns have been shrinking for a long time. The report indicates the trend will not change.

But in oil country and in economically diversified urban centers, growth will escalate at rates previously not experienced in most of North Dakota. It’s generally good news, but caution is in order.

The challenges of managing growth, including but not limited to housing needs, likely will require an entirely new public-private structure of zoning, regulation and subsidies, particularly in oil country. For example, in the willy-nilly rush to build affordable housing, developers should be held to the highest possible codes and standards, or the seeds of future slums and rattraps will be sown. There’s enough anecdotal evidence coming out of the Oil Patch building boom to suggest local regulations are not up to snuff, or are being massaged to accommodate some (not all) developers.

The governor and his team have been criticized for “not doing enough” in oil country about housing and other needs. Chalk up the criticism to the political claptrap of a campaign season.

Dalrymple’s approach has been pragmatic and data-driven. Whether with roads or law enforcement or housing, the first step has been to conduct thorough assessments before committing money and other resources. The NDSU population and housing study provides the state and the private sector with good information that will be used to develop enhancements and incentives to meet housing needs. That’s the smart way to go – the cost-effective way to go.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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