Locals to big oil: We want our town back!

October 24, 2011: 7:18 PM ET

WATFORD CITY, N.D. (CNNMoney) -- For those who have spent their entire lives in the previously quiet farm towns that dot the northwestern corner of North Dakota, the discovery of oil in the Bakken formation has been anything but fortuitous.

The thousands of people from around the country flocking to these boomtowns has led to a housing shortage and an increase in traffic, crime and frustration among the locals who feel like their small, close-knit towns are now gone forever.

"At first, we were excited about the prospect of bringing in new people and money ... but it slammed us so hard, in such a little time that a lot of locals now are kind of resentful," said Deone Lawlar, a 57-year-old native of Watford City, which is located in the middle of the oil play. "Now we want our town back."

The land Lawlar's home is built on has belonged to her family for generations. Last year, the dirt trail that led to her house was extended past her home by an oil exploration company to build two oil rigs, a pipeline company and housing facilities for oil workers. Now, the once-solitary road plays host to semi trucks at all hours of the day.

Many drivers throw trash out their windows as they speed by. Lawlar said she even came home one evening to find a truck driver urinating on her lawn.

"The quiet peaceful country life as we know it is a thing of the past," said Lawlar. She and her husband used to joke that their next move would be to the cemetery. Now, it looks like it might be Bismarck.

Housing shortage sends prices soaring: If Lawlar does decide to move, there will undoubtedly be someone ready to grab up her land.

A housing shortage has sent rents soaring to levels typically seen in big cities like Manhattan and San Francisco. One-bedroom apartments can run around $1,500 a month, while two- to three-bedroom apartments are often around $3,000.

Even locals who have been renting their homes for years are getting surprise rent increases from landlords eager to cash in.

Six-figure salaries, but homeless

Kristen Pallacheck, a Williston native who works as a nurse at a nursing home, saw her rent triple this year.

"People are getting greedy, and we're losing people who have lived here their whole lives," she said. "It's hard to make ends meet, especially with two little kids. How does a nursing home keep up with the oil fields?"

Dangerous roads ahead: Along with oil companies and the workers who have flocked to work for them, have come dozens of semi trucks that are being used haul crude, water, sand and other supplies from the various well sites and rigs. Roads are getting torn apart as a result, leading to more accidents.

According to the Williston Police Department, the number of accidents it investigated jumped 30% last year to 974, and traffic misdemeanors have also increased 30% year-over-year, from 324 in 2009 to 421 in 2010.

America's Biggest Boomtown

"I drive 15 miles to work everyday with my two children and we have about at least two to three near car accidents a week," said Michelle Falcon-Nelson, who lives in Williston. "The traffic is horrible and our road infrastructure was not ready for the hundreds of oil field trucks that tear it up. This week alone, there were four semi truck accidents in four days."

But it isn't just the bad roads that have residents concerned. Crime of all types -- theft, violence, abduction, sex crimes, domestic abuse -- has tripled, with 16,495 reports of criminal activities in Williston last year.

Josslyn Finck, who has lived in nearby Watford City for eight years, said she used to feel safe because she lived across the street from a police officer. But then she found out that someone siphoned the gas out of his police car in the middle of the night. Now, she won't even let her kids play in the yard.

The Williston Police Department counts a mere 22 officers in its ranks and has been trying to recruit more men and women, but the housing shortage and the lure of big-money working on the oil rigs has made it next to impossible.

David Peterson, a detective at the Williston Police Department, said that if the town's infrastructure, including the police department's staffing, isn't able to catch up with the surging population, he would like to see an end to the wave of people coming into his town.

"A lot of people in other parts of the country are saying, 'I'd do anything for a job', and here I'm telling you I'd like to see this go?" he said. "It's because of the problems it's created with everything -- with law enforcement, with our streets, with our restaurants, with our traffic, with our housing."

Not the 'middle of nowhere' anymore: For many locals, these concerns -- along with worries about the long-term environmental impact the oil play is having on their land -- outweigh the economic boom that has been spurred by the newly-discovered oil of the Bakken formation.

"While the majority of us appreciate the additional revenue the energy industry brings to our community, the problem for a lot of us is that it's not just our community anymore," said David Rolfson, who has farmed in Watford City all his life. "We liked it better when it was 'the middle of nowhere'."

Harold Hugelen, who has lived in the 1,000-person town of Belfield for the last 40 years and owns a local bar and restaurant, said all the money in the world isn't worth the chaos that has been brought to his town.

Double your salary in the middle of nowhere

"Business-wise, it's been great -- the cash has been rolling in," he said. "We all work all our lives to get enough cash to do what we want: to retire, to have our little spot. And okay, so I've got this big pile of cash, but now I don't have this little private spot anymore, and where do I go? I can't find that anymore."

Carol Borlaug and Wanda Goetz, friends who grew up in Williston, recently decided to throw in the towel and move away from the town they hoped to retire -- and eventually die -- in.

"I will come back to be buried here; that's in my will. This is my home," said Goetz, who has lived in Williston for 61 years. "I was talking to myself this morning, and I thought, How am I gonna feel when I have to shut this door? I sold my house and have to be out by the first of November, and how is it gonna feel to walk out of that door?'"

Are you living in a boomtown? If you know of an area where jobs are plentiful and high paying, and resources and housing are scarce, e-mail blake.ellis@turner.com for the chance to be included in an upcoming story on CNNMoney. To top of page

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