Fargo’s ‘green city’ efforts save energy and money

The city of Fargo and its partners in conservation have been working hard for years to increase efficiencies and curb energy use. Their comprehensive efforts were recently recognized when they won the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize, a two-year competition between 50 semifinalist cities throughout the nation. Over the two years, the city and its residents saved an estimated $2 million in energy costs. That’s tangible evidence of the benefits of energy conservation, which is too easy to dismiss as the lofty aim of do-gooders. It’s all the more remarkable considering that North Dakota consistently ranks at or near the bottom of states in energy efficiency.

Fargo began working in 2014 with its partners—North Dakota State University, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Xcel Energy and Cass County Electric Cooperative—to form the partnership, called eFargo. But the conservation collaborations evident in Fargo’s winning effort can trace their lineage back years, some instigated by former City Commissioner Mike Williams.

The stench from the city landfill, for instance, prompted city officials in 2009 to turn methane gas into electricity, and convert sewage into water suitable for industrial use. That effort was estimated to contribute $2 million a year to city coffers. Every day, the city treats about 12 million gallons of wastewater. Now up to two million gallons of water per day, once discharged into the Red River, is piped to an ethanol plant in Casselton, earning a profit for the city and reducing the use of groundwater.

Since 2002, the city worked to replace incandescent street light bulbs with energy-efficient LED bulbs, which now illuminate all traffic lights and 85 percent of pedestrian traffic lights, saving $30,000 per year. Similarly, the MATBUS fleet uses biofuel blends and runs eight hybrids to save fuel and therefore reduce emissions. Altogether, city generation from methane, solar power and wind over the years has produced 57.1 million kilowatt hours—impressive, considering 1 kilowatt hour will power a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours. The landfill methane generator produces enough energy to power 700 homes every day.

The eFargo collaboration builds upon that foundation. Among other steps, it resulted in creation of a website that provides tips, data and games, including an evil character, Waste-A-Watt, to encourage energy efficiency and conservation. Students are a major focus of the effort, since they live where most energy is consumed—homes constitute 85 percent of Fargo’s energy use. The efforts saved the equivalent of 50.4 megawatts of power.

Fargo has long prided itself on being a “green city.” The $5 million prize will help spur further efforts that will make the city even greener. Malini Srivastava, a professor at NDSU and leader of the project, hopes to use the prize money to work toward a net-zero carbon future for the Fargo-Moorhead metro area. One of the criteria that enabled Fargo to win the competition was the replicability of its strategies. We should spread the green; more communities would do well to follow Fargo’s lead.

High cost of specials needs to be addressed. Focus development in areas with existing infrastructure, not continued sprawl

How far south should Fargo grow? Costs may require limits

RURAL FARGO – Surrounded by miles of farmland, an industrial park is under construction where Interstate 29 meets 100th Avenue South.

From here, it’s about two and a half miles to the closest developed part of Fargo and roughly the same distance to the closest developed part of Horace.

Paces Lodging Corp., the developer of the Commerce on I-29 project, told city leaders more than a year ago that there’s a demand for affordable industrial space that simply can’t be met within city limits where costs are higher.

Mike Williams was the only city commissioner who argued against that logic at the time. He said it gets pretty expensive for taxpayers if developers are allowed to skip over industrial-zoned land within city limits where, at the behest of other developers, the city has already spent a lot money on streets and sewers.

While Commerce on I-29 is an extreme example — few other developers have pushed so far south within Fargo’s zoning jurisdiction and outside city limits — it does illustrate the economic drive that’s led the city to expand its footprint by 31 percent since 2000.

It also illustrates the dilemma Fargo faces in paying for that growth, which includes not just building new infrastructure but providing services such as snow plowing, and police and fire protection in new areas.

Mayor Tim Mahoney said it’s important to not go against market forces, which has led to successful neighborhoods such as Osgood in the city’s southwest. But, he said, city commissioners are beginning to debate how the city grows and Williams isn’t wrong about the need for efficiency. “Our challenge will be where do we go from here. Are we going to 76th (Avenue South)? Are we going to 100th?”

Setting goals

The debate isn’t entirely about how far south the city should grow but how dense.

Advocates of high-density growth such as Williams and Doug Burgum, a major downtown developer, say the city shouldn’t expand into new areas until existing areas are built up. Within city limits, streets and sewers already exist so the city wouldn’t have to finance new infrastructure. Building up in existing areas, a practice called infill development, also increases property values in those areas, allowing the city to better recoup the cost of services through property taxes.

There is actually broad agreement within City Hall and in the public that high-density growth is preferred to the kind of leapfrog development represented by Commerce on I-29. The city’s growth plan calls for more residents per acre while the Go 2030 plan, developed with the input of residents, calls for more infill development.

In 1950, there were 10.7 Fargo residents for every acre. In the decades since, the city’s physical size has grown faster than its population. There are now 3.7 residents per acre. So growing farther south without a huge increase in population would contradict the city’s growth goals.

And the city does have leverage allowing it to work towards those goals.

The cheapest road, a two-lane asphalt road, costs an average of $2.3 million a mile and underground pipes cost $1.8 million a mile, not including rebuilding the road on top, according to the Engineering Department. Given those costs, the city’s willingness to provide financing can make or break projects. Typically, the city doesn’t require landowners to pay special assessments to cover its costs for 10 years or until the property is developed, whichever happens first.

The city also controls zoning as far as four miles outside city limits in areas where it expects to grow. That gives it a say over the kinds of buildings constructed and how many people are allowed to live in them.

While Commerce on I-29, located outside of Fargo, is getting infrastructure and services from other local governments it still had to go to the city for a zoning change. Most commissioners may have been persuaded because the city didn’t have to pay for anything.

Market forces

Mahoney, who doesn’t disagree with the general goal of high-density growth, cautioned against contradicting the market.

The Osgood neighborhood, which came about in the early 2000s, is filling in rapidly with high-value properties and is dense enough that residents can walk or bike to stores, the mayor said. Had the development come before the commission five years ago, when high-density growth became more popular, he said, he doubted city leaders would’ve approved of growth so far south.

But not all developments work out as expected.

Burgum, who was a software mogul before he became a downtown developer, said when he built what’s now the Microsoft campus down south he had a lot of support from city leaders who thought it would trigger new developments.

Fifteen years later, there are still empty fields north and south of the campus, which lies along Interstate 29 between an extension of 44th Avenue South and 47th Avenue South.

How far south?

Within Fargo proper there is now close to 49 square miles, with developed areas stretching as far south as 76th Avenue South.

Williams said the city should offer incentives for growth within city limits because that’s more efficient and allow new growth no farther than 64th Avenue South, at least until the flood diversion is done. Properties farther south are just too vulnerable, he said.

City Planner Jim Gilmour used the same logic when he suggested going as far as 76th Avenue South.

Between the present city limit and 76th Avenue there is around 4 square miles still outside city limits, which Gilmour said is enough for another 10 to 15 years of growth.

Commissioners generally agree that any new growth should be adjacent to existing infrastructure but they have yet to agree to a line in the soil, according to Mahoney. “We’re at a point where we’re going to have thoughtful discussion about how much further south we’re going to go.”

They’ll have to decide on a policy soon.

Planning consultants told them earlier this year that the city has grown faster than planners expected. Given the current trajectory, they said that, in 15 years, the area roughly between 76th and 88th would be 60 percent developed and the area between 88th and 100th would be 10 percent developed. Currently, those areas are less than 5 percent developed. The cost of streets to serve the new growth is estimated at nearly $260 million with Fargo bearing most of the brunt.

Working together, Fargo can accomplish great things

Fargo City Commissioner Mike Williams has retired from the commission after 12 years of service. One of the projects started during his term there is the 2nd Street North floodwall that is currently under construction and is being built between the city hall and the Red River.
Dave Wallis / The Forum

Mike Williams came to fight City Hall, but joined it instead

FARGO — Walking up the stairs of the downtown library, Mike Williams said residents have visited the building more than 500,000 times a year.

That’s more than visit the Fargodome, he pointed out.

As a citizen activist, Williams had led petitions to limit the taxing authority of local governments. But as a freshman city commissioner, he urged voters to pass a short-term sales tax to build the library.

One of his petitions had made it harder to levy sales taxes by requiring a 60-percent supermajority vote instead of a 50-percent majority vote, yet the library tax still passed with 61 percent.

“It shows people are willing to tax themselves for good projects,” he said in an interview Thursday June 30.

It’s typical of Williams’ unconventional political path that’s taken him through three consecutive terms on the commission, the maximum allowed by city term limits. June 27 was his last night as commissioner, at least for now.

“Mike is very principled,” said John Strand, a Williams ally who will replace him as a new commissioner, with his first meeting set for Tuesday, July 5. “He’s willing to represent the people to the point where he used to always say he might not be re-electable again because of his convictions.”

Winning ways

Williams first went to City Hall to fight it.

That was in 1995 when he began work on the sales tax supermajority requirement. In 2000, he fought the city’s plan to add an ice arena to the Fargodome. In 2002, he lead a drive to limit the school district’s property tax authority, an initiative also involving Strand. Williams succeeded in all three. Later he and Strand would succeed in getting more state funding for schools, which allowed the district to slash its property tax rate.

In the meantime, he ran repeatedly for a seat on the City Commission, winning on his third try in 2004. Once he was inside, Williams had a way of getting his way, persuading voters to support a stricter smoking ban, passing a law barring the city from using eminent domain for economic development, starting a planning process that emphasizes higher density growth, expanding the landfill’s methane mining efforts and, most recently, building a new parking ramp.

“Mike is like yeast sometimes,” said Mayor Tim Mahoney, who’s served on the commission with Williams since 2005 and who named Williams deputy mayor in 2015. “You put yeast in bread, and it helps things to rise. Him pushing, sometimes that helped us to move on to further spots.”

“Kindness” is his secret, Williams said. “Even when people don’t agree with you when they come up with another idea they find that ‘Jeez, he was OK even when he didn’t agree with me. I can work with this guy.'”

To those that know him, like Mahoney and Strand, the secret is his encyclopedic knowledge of municipal issues. A conversation with him can become a list of facts and figures delivered one after another and branching into various related issues.

“He doesn’t stand up and pontificate but he will share his best thinking in a real solid, grounded fashion, in an orderly, logical fashion,” Strand said. “It’s not shooting from the hip emotional stuff with him.”

Rabble rouser to insider

Looking out the library window at the mounds of dirt and noisy construction machinery, Williams pointed to the landing on the new floodwall that would allow pedestrian access to the river by way of a walk bridge. He noted the site of the new City Hall to the northeast and the site of what he hopes will be a mixed residential-commercial building to the east.

Williams advocated for all of these things, and he expressed pride in how everything was coming together. It’s almost a contrast to his earlier image as a anti-City Hall agitator, something Mahoney noticed.

“Early in his career he was probably more of a rabble rouser,” the mayor said. “Later in his career he was more of trying to get things done.”

Asked if he saw things differently at all when he became a City Hall insider, Williams conceded he was more willing to support tax incentives for economic development but only those that are targeted and don’t last long.

Even when he works on projects that will cost the city more money, such as downtown parking ramps or hybrid buses, it’s with an eye towards saving money in the long run.

The ramps would be built on land that is mostly or entirely used for surface parking, generating little property tax for the city, Williams said. With the ramps, which will be wrapped by new mixed-use buildings, the city will collect more revenue and bring more residents downtown. Bringing more people downtown also is a way to fight sprawl, which costs more to provide services such as snow plowing but bring in less revenue.

The hybrid buses are more efficient and have saved money in the long run, Williams said. They’ve got double the mileage with less emission, he said.

A return to City Hall?

Reviewing his political career so far, Williams indicated he’s not ready to end his advocacy days yet.

His term on the Parking Commission won’t expire for two years, and he said he’ll use that time to work on an improved downtown plan.

And after that, who knows.

“I’m keeping my options open,” he said. “Like I said, I was an activist before I was elected That’s one of the reasons I love Fargo is you can be as engaged as you want to be.”

That could include another run for City Commission in two years as allowed by city law. “That’s a good possibility. We’ll see,” he said.

Strand said he expects Williams will find something to do. “Nature detests gaps. If there’s a gap with Mike’s name on it and calls him he’ll fill it.”

Former Fargo City Commissioner Announces Run for 2018

Former Fargo City Commissioner Mike Williams is missing his old job.

He announced this morning on KFGO that he will run again for a seat on the commission in 2018.

Williams served three consecutive four-year terms on the board and left at the end of June 2016 due to term limits.

But the city allows a person to run again in the next regular election and the term limits start over.

The 61-year old Williams calls himself a citizens advocate and says he’s eager to return.

Mayor Tim Mahoney, Commissioner Tony Gehrig and Commissioner Dave Piepkorn are all up for re-election in 2018.

The mayor has said he will run for a second term.

Former Fargo City Commissioner Mike Williams to run again

Mike Williams says he will run again for Fargo City Commission. Williams served three consecutive terms on the commission, the maximum allowed by city term limits before leaving the board this past June. The 61-year old Williams calls himself a citizens advocate and says he’s eager to return. He made his announcement on KFGO’s News & Views with Joel Heitkamp Wed.

The terms of commissioners Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn are up for election in the June 2018 as is that of Mayor Tim Mahoney who said earlier he plans to run for re-election to a second term. He was elected mayor in a special election in 2015, filling out the term of Dennis Walaker who died. He was previously a city commissioner.


After two-year break, Williams will run again for Fargo City Commission

Mike Williams served three straight terms on the Fargo City Commission, and in June he hopes to be elected to his fourth after a two-year hiatus.

Williams has declared his candidacy for the commission spot to be determined in the June 2018 city election.

“I’d like to build on some of the good work that happened over my 12 years on the commission,” Williams said Wednesday, Nov. 22.

City law allows a maximum of three consecutive terms on the commission. After the two-year break, Williams will be eligible to run again.

When wrapping up his third stint in June 2016, Williams indicated he wasn’t done with his days of advocacy, saying another run was “a good possibility.”

Williams said he wants to focus on water management, and not just flood protection, but water supply and conservation.

Affordable housing would be another area of concentration.

“The starting point is people’s well-being — being able to afford to live in a quality place,” he said.

Williams expects there will be a good slate of candidates.

“Sometimes as many as 11 people have run. That’s good. It shows a lot of interest,” Williams said.

The terms of Commissioners Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn are up next June, as is the term of Mayor Tim Mahoney, who announced in September he plans to run for re-election.