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.

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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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