Campground sale offers ray of hope

Score one for the good guys.

At a time when RV parks everywhere are being snatched up by developers who covet their real estate, or by investment groups looking to cash in on the latest vacation fad, the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet is pursuing a different approach that promises to decrease pressure on local campgrounds to serve as low-income housing—even as it reduces the overall number of local RV sites.

The lack of affordable housing on Cape Cod, emblematic of a problem afflicting high-dollar resort areas all over the country, has been felt most acutely in Wellfleet, which has the lowest percentage of affordable housing on the Cape. Seasonal ownership, short-term rentals and skyrocketing prices have decimated the year-round rental supply, just as they have in Vail and Aspen, the Berkshires, the Smoky Mountains, Jackson Hole and other playgrounds of the well-to-do. Waiters, cooks, sales clerks—even teachers, firefighters and cops–are left scrambling for a place to sleep, much less for a family life of any kind, given that the median price of Wellfleet houses sold in the first part of this year was over $800,000.

So when Wellfleet’s town fathers learned that the three Gauthier brothers were looking to sell the 21.3-acre Maurice’s Campground, they realized they were looking at “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” as reported by the Cape Cod Times. Unfortunately, private developers and other campground operators had reached the same conclusion—albeit for different reasons—and with readier access to financing and fewer bureaucratic hurdles to clear, were quick to start lining up with their offers.

But the Gauthiers, aged 68 and up and whose family has owned the property since 1950, weren’t all that enchanted with their suitors. “So many of these people come in and the first thing they do is double the rates, or they’re going to build trophy homes,” the youngest brother, John, told the Provincetown Independent, explaining that such a possibility didn’t meet the family’s “vision.” The town’s purchase, on the other hand, “is a win-win.”

Still, there were those hurdles. Although the town agreed in mid-April to buy the entire operation for $6.5 million, the purchase would have to be approved at a special town meeting Sept. 10. So would a deed restriction requiring the land be used for affordable housing, and so would $225,000 in additional funding to operate the campground through the end of the fiscal year. And then it would all require a second vote Sept. 20, even before the town figured out how it was going to pay off a loan underwriting the purchase.

Oh, and then there was the little problem of 35 failed cesspools at the campground. . . .

For all that, Wellfleet’s voters approved the purchase more than two-to-one, by a vote of 583 to 247, as well as giving a thumbs-up to the rest of the package. Just don’t look for any quick changes. The purchase agreement stipulates that the property will continue as a campground for six years, partly in order to give its residents time to find alternative housing, partly because the town says it will take several years to get permitting, design and approvals for housing and wastewater treatment projects to be built.

Although Maurice’s has more than 180 RV sites, as well as 12 cabins and 16 tent sites, roughly two-thirds of the sites are occupied by seasonal campers, including vacationing families and approximately 60 seasonal workers. And while Wellfleet’s planners have not yet indicated how many housing units they want to build on the 21 acres, even a moderately dense development would be big enough accommodate both the seasonal workers at Maurice’s as well as those now living at the five other area campgrounds that permit long-term stays. That, in turn, should result in an overall increase in available RV camping for tourists and transient campers.

Or so one can hope. With promised affordable housing at Maurice’s not available until late this decade, and given an ongoing housing squeeze that long ago entered the crisis stage, it’s fair to wonder if it’s all too little too late. “We get a bunch of inquiries from people looking for long-term,” Katie Nussdorfer, owner of a campground in nearby Eastham, told the Independent, attesting to the unbalanced demand for affordability. “We have gotten into situations with people who are homeless, and that has been difficult.”

One thing’s for sure, though. Had the Gauthiers decided differently, even a flicker of hope wouldn’t exist.

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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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