What’s in a name?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Taking a leaf from Lewis G. Carroll, some campground operators unhappy with local efforts to rein them in are putting a new spin on such commonly understood words as “campground” and “summer camp.” The result is a topsy-turvy world of strained logic and semantic inversions that strain credulity, presented with utter seriousness because of the serious money at stake.

In Tremont, Maine, Pointy Head (yes, really!) Campground early this year responded to three violations for operating illegally by applying for a proper town permit. The site plan it submitted showed three existing cabins, 12 tent sites and two service buildings with showers and bathrooms, but the application was so deficient that its owners were told to come back with more information. Before that process could unwind, however, town residents–reacting to an unrelated attempt to build a different campground–voted in November for a 180-day moratorium on all campground applications, with an option to renew the pause in six-month increments.

That might appear to have ended the whole Pointy Head exercise–until the non-permitted campground, demonstrating the Dickensian aptness of its name, submitted a new application. This time Pointy Head wants to have 15 cabins on the property. The campground moratorium is irrelevant, the applicant’s lawyer told the Tremont planning board on Dec. 14, because the new application seeks to replace tent sites with cabins–and without tent sites there is no campground. Forget the application it filed earlier this year. This is a whole new deal–nothing to see here!

“We didn’t care what we were called two years ago, or even six months ago, when we were last in front of you in April,” Humpty Dumpty told the board. “We never were a campground.”

Well, not legally, perhaps.

In the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, meanwhile, Northgate Resort Ventures is seeking to buy a 170-acre property in the town of Hinsdale, presumably to add to its chain of Jellystone campgrounds. If successful, it would put in 317 RV sites where there are none today, including 100 park models, plus a cafeteria, a general store and a 35,000-square-foot water park, euphemistically called a “splash pad.” And it would operate for nearly seven months a year, late April through October.

Camp Emerson, the property Northgate wants to acquire, has been a summer camp for more than half a century. Some 250 campers, ages 7 to 15, live in its two-dozen wooden cabins between mid-June and early August, doing the kinds of things that summer campers have always done: water sports, archery, woodworking, outdoor games. They do this in an area zoned R-5, which is reserved for agricultural and low-density housing, but which allows for a handful of special exceptions–exceptions that include summer camps, but most emphatically do not include RV campgrounds.

A non-starter for Northgate? Nah. Allowing RVs on the property simply “continues the land’s use for camping,” the company argued before the Hinton zoning board of appeals earlier this month. Indeed, its application for a special permit seeks “to operate a Commercial Summer Camp (a.k.a. ‘campground’).” Summer camp, campground–both include the word “camp,” so how much difference can there be?

Both vocabulary exercises are to be taken back up by their respective planning officials in January. We’ll learn then, in Humpty Dumpty’s terms, who has better mastered the language.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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