TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — Developing North Fargo For Family-Oriented Housing

On March 1, I spent an entire late afternoon and early evening at City Hall observing a group of north-side neighborhood citizens presenting the Fargo Planning Commission with the reasons why they oppose the proposed rezoning of the property commonly known as Ponyland — the trace northeast of 32nd Avenue North and University Drive.

The presentations by both the developer and the citizens were respectful and cordial, considering what the citizens had to lose and what the developer had to gain. The chamber was full. When the planners asked who was there to speak in favor of the project, not one of those in attendance spoke up.

When asked who wished to speak in opposition to the project, the place erupted. For the next couple of hours, those who live and invest in the neighborhood spoke calmly and factually about their concerns.

The most convincing presentation was by Mike Joelson and his wife, a couple whom I’d never met and whom I am now in awe of.

Some people knew that developer Jim Roers is on the board of trustees of the North Dakota State University Development Foundation, and some did not. As Mike Joelson put it, because the college is not invested in nor sanctioning the Bison Village project, it is a strictly privately funded and owned property. (More on this in a minute.)

The proposal to move nearly 900 students — the equivalent of the population of Harwood, N.D., plus 200 people — onto this parcel of land is the point that Joelson and his group were trying to emphasize.

There was talk about heavy traffic — there would be — and an increase in criminal activity — there would be —and a complete change to what is now a great residential area that was created in reliance on proper zoning.

The majority of the Planning Commission apparently didn’t understand that NDSU has its own police department, which exists to prevent crime and provide order. The buildings proposed for the site include five five-story buildings 60 feet high, would be capable of housing 900 students … not controlled by an NDSU presence. That is in itself a reason to deny this zoning change. Students do a lot for this community through their citizenship and voluntary actions, but first- or second-year students, by their very nature, will bring thoughtless party people. I don’t have to spell out the illegal activities that go on with this age group.

I will tell you that I expect common-sense approaches to issues by said board as well as by elected officials. I told him and the planners that my 45 years of experience on the bench dealing with all types of people, including but not limited to college students, suggests to me this is not a good idea.

After hours of testimony, elected-person Rocky Schneider’s take was his inference that project opponents were against college students. He knew better. If that wasn’t a mind made up in advance, I don’t know what is. When he made that statement for the “record,” I watched the bewilderment and hurt of the neighborhood residents who were present.

A little earlier, I mentioned that some members knew — and others did not — of the connection between Jim Roers and NDSU. On March 3, The Forum reported that he was warned by the Foundation of a possible conflict of interest on another housing project.

There are a lot of definitions of “conflict of interest.” I’m settling on two easy-to-read versions:

— A situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest, and…

— A situation in which a party’s responsibility to a second party limits its ability to discharge its responsibility to a third party.

Well, let’s examine some facts. The Roers bid was the highest. After having the company’s bid accepted, the first thing Roers did was to apply for a zoning change. Of course, included in the zoning change request was notice that the buildings he proposes would house NDSU students.

Gee, do you wonder if he talked to anyone at NDSU before he placed his bid? Do you wonder whether his position as a trustee of the NDSU Foundation allowed him to get his foot in the door? Might this constitute an unfair advantage?

Do you think the developer was impartial? That the developer had a self and professional interest that just might conflict with the public interest … in this case, the neighborhood’s?

Do NDSU and the NDSU Foundation have a duty to work with the community, and not against it? Shouldn’t the residents have the right, if not the duty and obligation, to speak up? There has been communication — but is the business side listening to the citizen-residents’ side?

The Roers representative took a swipe at a long-term trailer court far north of the proposed development as though those people who live there are second-class citizens. What a display of arrogance! The representative also took aim at the sewage treatment plant as a negative to residential development. That’s not arrogance; that’s just plain false. There is much residential development to the north, south, east and west of that facility. To state the plant is bad for housing is one thing … but then sticking 900 people in buildings right beside it shows a degree of indifference to truth and fact that is difficult to understand

This is the last open space in North Fargo for development of single-family homes, twin homes and condominiums. All of these would house families who could develop roots, stay and live in the community. They would raise their children, use our schools (and keep the current ones open) and continue developing the north side as the family-friendly environment that it is today.

It’s only fair to students that they live on or close to campus and that student housing be policed and regulated by NDSU wherever it ends up.

Scott Stofferahn and Mara Brust, a candidate for the Fargo City Commission, listened intently and opposed the development. Rocky Schneider, cheerleading for the NDSU students instead of listening to the current residents, voted “aye.”

My north-side Fargo neighbors and friends: In April, we elect two new city commissioners. It’s long past the time to elect people who listen to the citizens and to retire those who don’t — and this applies to state senators and representatives as well. Amen.

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