‘A luxurious state of privation’

Just in time for the release of KOA’s eighth annual report about the state of camping in North America, historian Phoebe S.K. Young has published a book that gets at the deeper complexity of this fundamentally American pastime and of our love-hate relationship with this wacky idea of sleeping outdoors.

As reviewed by Dan Piepenbring in the current issue of The New Yorker, Young’s book, “Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement,” explores Americans’ confusion about what constitutes legitimate camping and how it’s different from simple vagrancy or homelessness. As Piepenbring notes, as far back as the 1870s, campers “didn’t want to be mistaken for actual vagabonds, and the line between the two was easily smudged.” An early camping enthusiast described it as “a luxurious state of privation,” to which Piepenbring adds, “One of its luxuries was that it was temporary.” Indeed, the travel industry of that time began to promote tramping as an aesthetic, “something that campers could slip into and shuck off as they pleased.”

Came the Great Depression, however, and the shucking-off was not as easily accomplished–as is becoming increasingly true today. With an estimated 1.5 million Americans sleeping outside or in shelters, “budget-minded vacationers were sometimes cheek by jowl with the down-and-out. Who could say which was which?” In a further echo of today’s spurious industry representations, “manufacturers of camping trailers went out of their way to disclaim the use of their products as a ‘permanent address,'” in an apparent attempt to further the conceit that this was just a temporary affectation.

But as more than 3 million visitors overran national parks and monuments–at that time considerably less developed than they are today–their undisciplined impact on the environment was unsustainable. “The deluge was unmanageable,” Piepenbring wrote, in a passage that is equally descriptive of today’s circumstances. “In addition to arresting vistas and pristine forests, campers expected generous amenities–firewood, electric lights, running water, garbage collection–and they were not in the habit of leaving nature as they found it.”

Struggling to strike a balance between leisure and nature, in support of a belief that doing so was “a potent way for citizens to demonstrate national belonging,” U.S. Forest Service employee Emilio Meinecke came up with a campground design to minimize campers’ impacts on plant life that is still used today. Yet even as almost 90,000 acres of federal campgrounds were reworked according to his template, Meinecke was fretting that campers were overstaying their welcome. Some visitors, he complained, “evidently camped for a long time,” giving his sites a “‘used,’ second-hand look” that spoiled it for “decent people who are not slum-minded.”

Nearly a century later, history is repeating itself. While Young’s more contemporary focus in the second half of her book is on camping as a tool of social protest, including tent cities raised by the Bonus Army in 1932, Resurrection City in 1968 and Occupy Wall Street more recently, it could as readily have noted that uncounted millions are again “easily smudging” the distinction between campers and “actual vagabonds.” At least a million RVers are full-timing, often on public lands, often for the extended periods that gave Meinecke fits about creating a “‘used,’ second-hand look.” Another 600,000 or so Americans are living on city streets and in shelters, and untold tens of thousands more are sheltering in national forests and on Bureau of Land Management acreage. Many are in tents, but many also are in battered old RVs, adapted vans and school bus conversions.

The worsening housing crisis will only increase these numbers (all of which are conservative estimates), adding to a “camping” population that is not accepted as such–if it’s even recognized–by the various industry-driven studies of the subject. When one of the key findings in KOA’s annual survey is that nearly 40% of campers report a household income of more than $100,000, for example, you can be pretty certain its research did not extend to those for whom the outdoor “lifestyle” is not something they can just “shuck off.”

Should park managers be certified?

The blurred distinction between mobile home parks and RV parks is growing even more fuzzy in California, where a Senate bill that would require managers of trailer courts to get annual training and certification is in the legislative hopper. Trailer courts–and, almost incidentally, RV parks as well.

SB 869, introduced in January by Senator Connie Leyva, would require “each person employed or acting in an onsite or offsite managerial capacity or role, on behalf of a mobilehome park or recreational vehicle park to receive appropriate training of at least 18 hours” by May, 2024, and additional training each year thereafter. Trained park managers would receive a certificate of completion, to be posted “in a conspicuous location onsite.” Failure to get the training or to post the certificate could result in civil penalties and a suspension of a facility’s operating permit.

The bill is vague on the training specifics, leaving it up to the state’s Dept. of Housing and Community Development to fill in the blanks. But it does specify that the department “shall review the complaints it has received” from park residents when designing the curriculum, paying particular attention to complaints about evictions, fees, management of utilities, homeowner communications and how sales of a campground are handled. The training is also to include parks’ contingency planning and how they will respond to medical and other emergencies.

There is more, but it may all be moot, as the bill has been assigned to the Senate Appropriations Committee Suspense File. A potential graveyard for all legislation with an annual price tag of $150,000 or more, the Suspense File’s hundreds of bills will be reviewed by the committee May 18 and either approved for floor vote or quietly allowed to expire. Which way SB869 will be decided is uncertain, but clearly CampCalNOW, the state’s trade association for RV parks and campgrounds, believes it’s a done deal, emailing its members with the assurance that the bill has been “shelved.”

Perhaps. On the other hand, Eric Guerra, a consultant for the Senate Select Committee on Manufactured Home Communities, believes that “things are still open.” The bill “is a pretty high priority” for Senator Leyva, who chairs the committee, following a rising chorus of complaints from park dwellers about predatory practices by park managers. Unlike neighboring Oregon and Nevada, both of which mandate training and licensing for park managers, California has no standards for such employees, even though the managers may be responsible for the safety of more than 200 residents, sometimes in remote areas.

Although most complaints that triggered the proposal have come from trailer parks, RV parks got swept into it because in many cases “they have become de facto mobile home parks,” Guerra explained. And while CampCalNOW argued that most RV parks in the state don’t have the kind of long-term residents that the bill is seeking to protect, the exceptions have been disturbingly stark. Most notably, the Fairplex RV Park in Pomona, a former KOA, was the subject of a blistering 2016 L.A. Times investigation that resulted in a state audit issuing several safety violations, including for frayed overhead electrical wires and bathrooms in disrepair. That memory lingers, Guerra said, and the Fairplex park was not unique.

It’s entirely possible, if Senator Leyva gets a sense that the political winds are unfavorable, that SB869 will yet be amended to modify its RV park aspects, while leaving stronger measures in place for mobile home parks. But whose interests would be served by a more narrowly tailored bill? A training requirement of 18 hours–which the bill expressly allows to be done online, in as many installments each year as desired–is at most a nominal obligation. RV parks, like trailer courts, increasingly are home to economically and physically vulnerable populations, in a state that is at growing risk of wildfires and mudslides. Ensuring that the people most directly responsible for maintaining a safe environment have just a teeny bit of instruction about their duties would seem a no-brainer.

The wonder is not that RV parks might be opposed to legislation that would set some minimum operational standards, but that more campground owners are not proactively implementing policies and practices that would safeguard their customers. Consider this, for example: when’s the last time you stayed at an RV park that had an automatic external defibrillator that you could readily access, in case your traveling companion had a heart attack? As with so many other common sense precautions, most RV park owners simply hope for the best and reflexively push back against anything that smacks of government regulation.

Leyva’s bill does not mandate AEDs, but by raising the subject of how campgrounds respond to emergencies, certainly opens the door for discussing this and other measures. RVers in California should be thankful for that, even if campground owners are less enthused.

First they came for the homeless . . .

No matter what metrics you examine, the national housing crisis gets only more dire with each passing month–yet the prevailing social response has been to make it ever harder for people to find a place they can call home. The predictable result: more people living on the streets, more rattletrap RVs heading for public lands and growing tension between those who own a home (or can afford rent) and those who don’t.

On the supply side, the latest news is that the average home price in the U.S. popped above $375,000 in March, a 15% increase over the past 12 months. This development came against a backdrop of mortgage rates nearly doubling in the same period, prompting headline writers to coo that an overwrought real estate market might finally be poised to cool down, as if that’s somehow meaningful. But unless they’re predicting an actual real estate downturn (they’re not), what the headline writers are saying is that housing prices will remain lodged at levels far higher than most working people can afford.

On the demand side, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to go around, and the consequences are truly inhumane. Thomas Fuller, writing last week for the New York Times out of its San Francisco bureau, reported that Los Angeles last year averaged five homeless deaths a day, including 287 who “took their last breath on the sidewalk.” Overall, he added, “the epidemic of deaths on the streets of American cities has accelerated, as the homeless population has aged and the cumulative toll of living and sleeping outdoors has shortened lives.”

Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, Nashville and Salt Lake City are among the cities Fuller cited where officials and homeless advocates have been alarmed by the rising number of deaths–yet the public response to homelessness in these and other cities has been increasingly punitive. The Los Angeles City Council, for example, recently decided that starting May 15 it will again enforce parking restrictions for “vehicle dwellings,” which essentially means that derelict RVs will get towed away. There undoubtedly are numerous legitimate reasons for doing this–not least among them a marked upswing in RVs going up in flames on city streets–but without an offsetting effort to provide low-cost housing, this simply means the city will be pushing homeless people back onto the sidewalk.

Sidewalk living, however, is increasingly criminalized. Austin, once an affordable city, has become the national leader in rising housing costs, with rents soaring 40% over the twelve months through February. Its residents nonetheless voted last year to reinstate criminal penalties against public camping, and the Texas legislature piled on a few weeks later by banning homeless encampments statewide and fining offenders $500. That’s called “squeezing blood from a stone,” but other states–including Florida and New Hampshire–have followed suit with similarly draconian bans.

Remarkably enough, some few landowners have tried to do what their public representatives apparently can’t, opening their private property to homeless campers. Unremarkably, mostly what they get is community pushback and official slap-downs. When one such private project, Camp Haven Sanctuary, became home to 19 otherwise homeless people outside Austin, local neighbors blasted the effort in online posts that were so vitriolic they had to be taken down. A similar encampment on private land in Akron, Ohio, was shut down by city officials who said it violated zoning restrictions–as were encampments in Salt Lake City, Morganton, WV, and elsewhere.

The housing squeeze is getting worse in other ways as well. Mobile home parks, frequently cited as America’s cheapest non-subsidized housing, increasingly are being sold either to developers who want the land for other uses, or to speculators intent on raising the rents. On those rare occasions when state legislators try to enact some kind of relief–as is happening currently in Colorado, where a House bill would cap annual rent increases–the real estate industry responds with cries about “rent control” and accusations of government overreach. Those may or may not be valid points, but they’re never followed by alternative approaches for dealing with a growing human tragedy.

Elsewhere, Tennessee earlier this month enacted a law straight out of a Dickens novel, requiring renters who want to appeal an eviction to first produce a year’s worth of rent. To break that down: if you’re a renter in Tennessee and can’t afford a rent hike, your landlord can evict you–and you’ll need to show a judge $15,000 or so before you can even file an appeal. Since for many people that’s even less likely than homeless people having $500 to pay a fine in Texas, the inevitable result will be even more people on the street.

Tennessee, to be sure, may be on the kook fringe. This is the state, after all, that made national headlines this past week when it also hopped onto the criminalization bandwagon, passing legislation that makes it a felony to camp or sleep in parks or other public property. Sen. Frank Niceley (see? another Dickensian touch, if rather sardonically so) backed the bill by telling his colleagues that in 1910 Adolf Hitler “decided” to be homeless. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books,” Niceley recounted.

“So a lot of these people, it’s not a dead-end,” Niceley concluded, in the ultimate perversion of a let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-lemons sermon. “They can come out of this, these homeless camps and have a productive life — or in Hitler’s case a very unproductive life.”

Hard to know just what Niceley intended with that unfortunate digression, but one reasonable interpretation is that our treatment of the homeless is breeding thousands of potential Adolf Hitlers. Maybe that suggests we should get serious about finding alternative responses. Until that happens, however, we can expect more homeless people occupying state and federal land, and more of a jaundiced attitude toward RVers and campers in general.

Dyrt-y facts about camping in 2022

The Dyrt, a rapidly growing web site and mobile app, is possibly the country’s most comprehensive platform for the camping public–which means, in turn, that The Dyrt’s users may comprise the country’s broadest demographic profile of the camping public. So when The Dyrt’s users have their temperature taken, it pays for other industry participants to take notice.

But first, some context. The Dyrt has listings of 44,000 public and private campgrounds and “other properties” that accept RVers and tenters. Last year the site pulled in more than 27 million visitors, more than doubling its 11.8 million visitors in 2020. More than a million of those visitors have been sharing tips and reviews on the site, and this past December, 3,000 of them–selected at random–responded to a far-ranging questionnaire about themselves and their experiences. An additional 2,000 respondents, chosen to be census-representative by age, race, gender and region, also were questioned, by two third-party organizations.

The result, released earlier this month, is the statistically most meaningful picture of what it’s like to go camping in America that the industry has produced to date. Some of its findings are by nature unsurprising–it’s their size or extent that may catch your breath. Other conclusions are disconcerting, to say the least. Among the highlights:

The camping “season” isn’t–camping is on the rise every month of the year, but no more so than in winter, up 40.7% since 2019. Camping is also less and less of just a weekend event, with 70% of campers now taking trips that include weekdays. Some of that growth is fueled by the rise in remote working, with the number of campers toting their laptops with them nearly tripling since 2018–in fact, The Dyrt notes, 23.8% of campers worked from a campsite last year.

The inevitable result, as most campers already know: it really has become a lot harder to book a campground. Nearly half of all campers reported difficulty finding available campsites in 2021, including 47% on the West Coast and 48% in the Mountain West and southwest; at the opposite end of the spectrum, of those trying to book a New England campground, only 37% reported difficulty. Overall, three times as many campers said they had trouble booking a site in 2021 as in 2019.

What or how you camp had a lot to do with how much trouble you had. Tenters had only twice as much difficulty in 2021, at 37%, compared with 18% in 2019. Motorhome and Class C campers, meanwhile, saw their comparable numbers soar to 51% from 14%, while those towing trailers weighed in at 55% and 16%, respectively.

Here’s the disconcerting part: frustrated by the overcrowding at conventional campgrounds, that unprecedented flood of campers is now washing over the backcountry. The number of boondockers looking for “dispersed camping” doubled in just one year, The Dyrt reported, adding that the four most-saved “campgrounds” on its app in 2021 were all dispersed-camping areas: Blue Lakes in Colorado, Edge of the World in Arizona, Shadow Mountain in Wyoming and Alabama Hills, California.

All four, it needs to be noted, have become severely degraded. Alabama Hills, on the eastern slope of the High Sierra and a much sought-after Hollywood shooting location, had to be closed down late last year because it was trashed so badly. The damage came despite an “Eastern Sierra Dispersed Camping Summit” held the previous February, in which half-a-dozen local groups managing public land in the area brainstormed strategies to prevent a repeat of the “carnage” from 2020, to little avail.

At Shadow Mountain, as another example, as many as 400 people can be camped in an area that has only one bathroom–back at the road entrance. Forest managers say the area’s occupancy has tripled in four years, from about 30% in 2016 to 91% last year. Human waste is the most obvious resulting problem, but officials also worry about poor food storage habits leading to increased wildlife-human conflicts.

That’s not the kind of information that will turn up in a search of The Dyrt. Nor will The Dyrt’s data base account for the growing number of “non-recreational campers,” which is land manager-speak for transient retirees, displaced families and homeless individuals. The western states with the most available land for boondocking also have some of the country’s highest housing costs–and among the highest rates of homelessness. People have to live somewhere. . . .

There’s no reason, alas, to think that any of these trends will soften in 2022.

Ever been to a BYOV event? It’s on!

My last post led off with a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, in which hope hurts–and April, mocking us with possibilities that can’t be realized, earns a reputation as the cruelest month of all. But this April, in a stretch of Nevada desert outside Pahrump some might view as a wasteland, there are those who might beg to differ.

Spearheaded by Bob Wells, van dweller extraordinaire, a group calling itself the Homes on Wheels Alliance (HOWA) is making ten minivans, SUVs, a Class C and a pickup truck more livable by installing floors and solar power systems, insulating walls and ceilings, and building beds and shelving units. The month-long project, relying on volunteer labor and donated supplies, is HOWA’s first Bring Your Own Vehicle event and will be capped by an open-house April 29 to which the public is invited.

There’s nothing fancy here–and anyone who’s followed Wells’ “career” would be surprised if it were otherwise. Starting as an involuntary van dweller in 1995 after a difficult divorce, Wells gradually grew into this new lifestyle, then embraced it so completely that in 2013 he self-published How to Live In a Car, Van or RV to help others follow in his footsteps. The subtitle explained what drove him–And get out of Debt, Travel, & Find True Freedom–and mostly it stresses low-cost simplicity and self-reliance, seasoned with the community that van dwellers create with and for each other.

Odds are you haven’t read Wells’ modest little book, but if his name sounds familiar anyway, it might be because you ran across it in Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, published in 2017. Or because you actually saw him, playing himself, in the movie version, which came out in 2020. Or maybe you’ve attended some of the activities of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a two-week event outside Quartzite, AZ that Wells has hosted each winter since 2010 and that has mushroomed from 45 attendees that first year to more than 10,000 self-professed nomads annually.

But while the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous is these days a bit over the top, the BYOV build event is at the opposite extreme: giving people who have next to nothing a little something that far exceeds its nominal value. Chosen from among minimal-income applicants who are full-time nomads living in vehicles that aren’t equipped for boondocking, the recipients include :

–Cathy, who has mobility challenges and whose van is getting a 200W solar power system for her medical equipment, as well as a ceiling fan;

–Richard, a veteran who has been sleeping in his pickup cab but is getting a floor, insulation and a platform bed built under a topper shell in the back, as well as a 100W solar power system;

–Ryan, who lost his job during the pandemic and has been living in his older van, is getting a 200W solar power system, a ceiling fan and wall and ceiling insulation.

There are, as mentioned, ten nomads benefiting from this inaugural BYOV. More were eligible but couldn’t be helped because of limited supplies and manpower–and it’s not going out on a limb to say that as word of this event gets out, the demand will grow. One can only hope that BYOV becomes as much of a phenomenon as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, and that April will deliver on at least some of its promises.

Short snow season a bad fire omen

This being the centennial of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, it’s fitting to recall his observation that this is the cruelest month. April is most pregnant with hope, after all, as winter’s ravages are pushed back by warmer air and reemerging life–only to come roaring back on a resurgent cold front, arctic blasts shriveling buds and hope alike, anticipation turning bitter with a disappointment that will not fade until May.

If you live along Colorado’s Front Range, however, you should be careful for what you wish. Here we are, almost midway through April, and the last snow accumulation–defined as an inch or more–seen in Denver was on March 17. Although one definition of “reckless” is to predict mountain weather, let’s go out on a limb by observing that there is no more than a trace of snow in the city’s weather forecasts for the next couple of weeks, raising the possibility that March 17 may become Denver’s earliest final snow in 135 years.

That isn’t just a historical oddity. It also means the city would have received about 10 inches below its normal snowfall for the year, a 17% shortfall from the average. And while Denver is not representative of the Front Range overall–areas to the west and north would usually have had more snow–it is a worrisome indicator. Less snowfall means less recharge of groundwater, less snowmelt to replenish the Colorado River, and drier vegetation overall, raising brush- and forest-fire risks.

All that must be viewed as a backdrop to two other, interrelated developments: Colorado’s mountain population is steadily increasing, even as the supply of firefighters and other emergency responders has been squeezed by escalating real estate prices. As a result, according to a troubling article by Jason Blevins in the Colorado Sun, fire chiefs in 15 resort-region fire protection districts reported record-setting call volumes last year and thus far into 2022, even as “spiking costs of living and housing prices make it difficult to hire and retain firefighters and recruit volunteers.”

The lack of adequate, affordable housing in or near resort communities, national parks and other areas favored by RVers and other vacationers is usually most noticeable in the hospitality industry, with food and accommodations providers coming up short on waiters, clerks, housekeepers and other workers. Less readily visible, however, is the effect of those shortages on emergency workers–until, of course, there’s an emergency. That’s when manpower shortages become critical, instead of merely inconvenient, and when response times grow excessively long because of the increased dispersal of first responders. As one fire chief told the Sun, “a small fire that typically could have been contained in a couple hours now takes all day.”

Colorado’s mountain population is growing–and getting greyer–in part because more people are occupying their vacation homes for longer periods of time. The availability of rental housing for long-term residents, meanwhile, has been curtailed as more of it converts to short-term rentals, which is more profitable for the owners but which means more population turnover, more traffic and more congestion, further slowing emergency response times. The population shift also means that demand for services, once tilted toward the weekends–when volunteers are generally more available–is now equally high midweek, putting additional strain on emergency services.

“We used to have folks on the sidelines always ready to play, but we are not seeing that anymore,” Telluride’s Fire Chief John Bennett told the Sun. “It’s the cost of living. It’s the availability of affordable housing. People are living further away from the community they work in, and that’s pretty consistent across all mountain communities.” Brad White, at the Grand Fire Protection District, added that his team’s average time commitment for a call is now 63 minutes, or almost double what it was just eight years ago.

None of that augurs well for a summer that is shaping up to be even more parched than last year, which culminated in a fire north of Denver that consumed approximately a thousand homes. That conflagration came at the end of December, once considered well outside a traditional “fire season” that ended by October–and possibly a reason to rethink Eliot’s conclusion about which month is the cruelest.

Brace yourself for the new normal

Here in the mid-Atlantic, trees are leafing out, the hyacinths are blooming and dandelions are popping up like–well, like weeds. All of which means folks who own RVs are getting itchy feet and will be rolling soon, if they aren’t already, in search of a little outdoor hospitality. For those who do, however, a word of warning: don’t expect much of a personal touch.

The U.S. has 600,000 more RVs than it had a year ago, most people have delegated the Covid pandemic to history’s dustbin, and working remotely retains a tenacious hold on many white-collar workers. The result is a crushing demand for RV sites that started two years ago and shows no signs of abating, even as the number of campground sites is growing at only a fraction of the increase in demand, and a significant piece of that at the high end of the market. Add a predictable increase in campground rates and the rising price of gas, and the idea of an RVing weekend or vacation as a relaxed, budget-friendly family outing is becoming just another quaint notion.

But that’s not all the bad news: campground employees are rapidly becoming an endangered species, especially at small to mid-sized campgrounds. Long sipping from the bottom of the labor pool, most campgrounds offer only seasonal work at or near the minimum wage, which often means slim pickings locally. Foreign students on J-1 visas traditionally took up some of the slack, as did work-campers, but with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine choking off much of the former (a significant percentage of whom came from Russia and eastern European countries), and many work-campers being notoriously fickle (the down-side of having an extremely mobile workforce), campgrounds have had to rely on local employees more than ever.

If they can find them. And if they find them, if they can keep them.

With U.S. jobless claims falling last week to a near-54-year low–when the labor force was less than half its current size–we are in what is euphemistically called a “tight” labor market. Looked at another way, there are 1.8 job openings for every one unemployed worker, which means that even if we reached zero unemployment we’d still have many, many jobs go begging for someone to fill them. Under the circumstances, then, it’s probably no surprise that the so-called national “quit rate” remains stubbornly high–albeit less than last summer–as workers seeking better pay and better working conditions show commendable initiative by walking away from exploitative employers.

Here’s the fly in the ointment: the “accommodation and food service” industry group, which includes campgrounds and RV parks, has the highest quit rate among all U.S. employers. Indeed, it’s twice the national rate for all occupations, averaging 6% a month since last fall–which, while it might not sound like much, means that employers are losing a quarter of their work force every four months. Moreover, because the pain is not evenly distributed, some parts of the country have notably higher (and therefore some have lower) percentages of their employees jumping ship. The March quit rate among Colorado’s accommodations employers, for example, was 10.3%.

Campgrounds that either can’t or won’t pay at least $15 an hour–and nearly a third of the American workforce is paid less than that–are finding themselves severely short-handed, and RVers are starting to see the results. Office and store hours are shorter, on-line booking and check-ins are becoming the default mode of interacting with the public, organized activities will be fewer and skimpier. Buildings may look a little shabbier, the grounds a little more unkempt and housekeeping in cabins and bathrooms somewhat less thorough. And as the season wears on, expect tempers to get shorter and the smiles more forced.

Presumably this all will eventually balance out and a new equilibrium will be established–eventually. But this sure isn’t your parents’ camping experience now, and it won’t be then, either.

The bogus nature of park models

A legal squabble in Currituck County, North Carolina, is exposing one of the camping industry’s biggest con jobs: the persistent claim that “park models” are just regular RVs.

A park model, as RVers who camp at commercial campgrounds probably know, is basically a cabin built on a single trailer chassis. Federal rules restrict them to less than 400 square feet, but they can be as much as 14′ wide, which neutral observers might conclude stretches the definition of “vehicle.” Indeed, like their larger mobile home or house trailer counterparts, park models usually require a special permit to be moved and usually need specialized towing equipment. Like house trailers, they usually don’t have holding tanks and so need direct water and sewer hookups for their plumbing. And like house trailers, once they’ve been set up they’re usually there to stay, wheels and axles removed and the undercarriages surrounded by skirting.

Park models, in other words, might appear to have a lot more in common with the manufactured housing found in trailer courts than with RVs. From a regulatory perspective, in fact, the only critical difference is the square-foot limitation: more than 400 square feet and the wheeled house is defined as a dwelling, subject to Housing and Urban Development regulations. Less than 400 square feet and the wheeled house is defined as “a trailer-type RV that is designed to provide temporary accommodations for recreation, camping or seasonal use,” removing it from under HUD’s regulatory umbrella and putting it under the arguably less stringent manufacturing standards of something called ANSI A-119.5.

That standard dates back to 1982, when the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, the trade group representing RV manufacturers, sought to draw a bright line between “vehicles” and “dwellings” to forestall greater regulatory oversight of the RVs it was building. Over time, however, RVIA has steadily enlarged the scope of ANSI permissibility. In 1997, for example, it persuaded HUD to exempt “small lofts” from the square-foot calculation–and in the years since, the small lofts have grown bigger and taller, and now range up to five feet high. More recently, the industry also won the right to exempt porches built on the chassis from the same square footage limitation, opening the door for even bigger chassis footprints.

Still, even as park models grow more and more indistinguishable from mobile homes, the industry superficially maintains the fiction that park models are intended only for part-time recreational use. “Superficially” because even though that’s the official line, the real-world reality is that park models are touted as low-cost housing “perfect for retired seniors and couples just starting life,” according to one sales brochure, which optimistically adds that they’re “built to last 30-50 years or more with minimal maintenance.”

Or consider the representations of an outfit called Platinum Cottages, which claims that “while they are referred to as RVs and mobile homes, park model homes are built more robustly than their competitors and have more creature comforts that closely resemble traditional homes. They can be used for a variety of different things, from temporary living to permanent living quarters.” Indeed–and there are people all around the country doing just that, living year-round in park models parked in campgrounds and in mobile home parks and in some cases on private land.

It’s also why Currituck County, where Blue Water Development bought an existing campground four years ago, is having a problem. Having rebranded the property as the KOA Outer Banks West campground and then deciding it wasn’t entirely happy with its acquisition (don’t these people do any prior due diligence?), Blue Water soon went to court over the county’s land use restrictions–already in place several years when it bought the property–so it could add 80 RV sites, a swimming pool and other facilities. It lost that battle last summer, when the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that no, the county rules would stand.

Undaunted, Blue Water is back in court again, this time over new campground rules that the county adopted this past February–rules, ironically, that to some extent ease the earlier restrictions. Raising Blue Water’s ire, however, is a provision that would limit RVs to vehicles no more than 8.5-feet wide “in the transport mode.” Which is to say, no park models, which the county contends look more like manufactured homes than RVs.

Blue Water, which has 21 park models 10 to 14 feet wide at the KOA, is aghast. “The park model RVs clearly are not manufactured homes,” the lawsuit asserts, further contending that it “creates an unfair competitive advantage” for campgrounds in nearby counties that don’t have the same restrictions. Indeed, says Blue Water, the new law could put it out of business altogether, and just as the season is picking up. Currituck County’s new rules are nothing less than an existential threat that means campgrounds will “cease to exist.”

Hyperbolic? No doubt, but it will be interesting to see how Blue Water advances its claim that park model RVs “clearly” are not manufactured homes. Yes, it can be counted on to stress the difference between ANSI and HUD certification, and that might be enough to make the legal point. But the reality is that this is an increasingly arbitrary and meaningless distinction for an ANSI standard that no longer passes the smell test–if it ever did. If Carrituck County doesn’t make its case with a legal argument, it should prevail on the facts: park models do in fact look more like a manufactured home than an RV.

Time to get real.

Can RVing survive itself?

If Rvers can be divided into two main categories–full-timers and vacationers/tourists–it’s the second group that risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Vacationing Rvers are swarming the landscape in ever larger numbers, over-running national parks and forests, crowding festivals and tourist attractions and jostling each other for campground sites, often while projecting an oblivious sense of self-entitlement that infuriates all those they encounter.

This being America, however, all that smells a lot like opportunity for those looking for the next big thing. No surprise, then, that investors and developers are falling all over themselves to build ever-bigger RV parks wherever possible, but ideally adjacent to a big “draw,” such as a lake or ocean beach, or a large amusement park or casino. And as they do, long-term residents of the impacted areas eventually realize–often belatedly–that they’re being invaded by economic interests that regard them as dispassionately as the trees they’ll be chopping down, the waterways they’ll be imperiling or the undersized roads they’ll be pounding, first with construction equipment and later with oversized RVs.

My last post got into that a bit as it related to the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, where local residents appear to be on the losing end of a bid by the Pequot tribe to build a $25 million RV resort–not on the reservation itself, but on a nearby 65 acres it purchased with casino proceeds. On one level, the addition of a mere 280 camping sites is just a blip in the ongoing expansion of a mega-complex that pulls in nearly 13 million visitors a year. On another, it’s one more accretion of outsiders with an outsized impact on an area they know and care nothing about–“outsized” because RVers leave a considerably larger footprint than day-trippers arriving by car or tour bus, or even overnighters booking one of the resort’s 2,224 hotel rooms, suites and villas.

There is a different way to do things–exemplified, unfortunately, by a tourist destination not known for its RVing opportunities. Still, there are lessons to be drawn from Hawaii’s rethinking of the way it presents itself.

Long renowned for its beaches, luaus and laid-back vibe, the island state–with half the population of Connecticut spread across twice the area– hosted a record 10.4 million visitors in pre-pandemic 2019. And felt over-run. A year earlier, a survey by the Hawaiian Tourism Authority found that two-thirds of respondents agreed that “this island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.” As summarized by an independent tourism consultant speaking to a New York Times reporter, “We’re so well known as a sun destination that people overlook the other aspects, the Hawaiian culture, the royal past, the interesting geological and natural attractions.”

Despite a slowdown in 2020, the tourists came roaring back last year–July arrivals exceeded their 2019 level by 21%. Rental cars were so scarce tourists were driving around in U-Hauls, and prices for everything started skyrocketing. The impact “was like putting 220 volts of electricity through a 110-volt circuit,” John De Fries, the newly appointed president of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, told a Bloomberg reporter.

Now the Hawaiians are pushing back, and in the process could be writing a playbook that their mainland counterparts might want to copy–and in some cases already are. Among the changes: reservations are now needed for popular natural attractions, the number of visitors is being capped and non-residents are charged higher fees than locals. Informational videos about the history, environment and cultural significance of various features are becoming required viewing. Conservation fees for natural resource management are in the works, and cliched versions of Hawaiian culture and cuisine are being supplanted by the real thing.

Most critically, these and other changes are being driven by Hawaiian natives– rather than mainlanders with “hospitality” degrees–who for the first time comprise the majority of the state’s tourism authority. Drawing on input from locals, Hawaii’s four counties have devised three-year strategic plans that focus on the sustainability of their resources rather than on marketing. Last November, the tourism authority launched a campaign to introduce the concept of malama, or caring for the land, which De Fries contends is emerging as the “sister value” of aloha. Today, the campaign claims 110 hotel and airline partners who will reward guests with a free night’s stay if they spend a day helping to clean beaches or reforest land.

There’s no reason why the Pequot couldn’t do something similar, harnessing their revenue-generating casino to promote Native American culture with something a little more ambitious than a 24-year-old museum that attracts fewer visitors in a year than its casino averages each day. Instead, the tribe continues pushing aside its neighbors while adding more of the one-note “attractions”–another hotel, another indoor water park, another RV “resort”– that are to recreation what monoculture is to farming.

Nor is there any reason why RV parks across the United States couldn’t offer the same malama approach to what they do–no reason other than lack of leadership at the national level, that is. But here’s what will come from such short-sightedness: that other main category of RVers? The full-timers? They increasingly will find themselves elbowed aside and priced out of their lifestyle.

%d bloggers like this: