KOA amps up the camping con game

One of the KOA-Terramor glamping “tents” in Bar Harbor, Maine. Behind the wooden wall at the head of the bed is a shower with dual shower heads and a ceramic floor.

It’s mid-winter in New York, but the temperature was unseasonably hot when the Saugerties town planning board held a public hearing last week on a KOA-proposed 75-site glamping resort. Approximately 200 local residents turned out Jan. 17 and hooted their approval as a score of speakers—and one mischievous singer—detailed the many reasons why this is a deplorable idea. But while not a single business owner, politician or civic booster rose in defense of the project, KOA showed no sign of backing down, either, demonstrating yet again how far it’s departed from its folksy origins and how oblivious it has become to public opinion.

The Saugerties venture is KOA’s second attempt to diversify into the high-dollar end of the campground business, following an initial foray in Bar Harbor, Maine. That first effort converted a conventional KOA into a glampground under the Terramor nameplate, but while repurposing an existing campground avoided some troublesome issues, it created others. So, on its second go-round, KOA decided to find an undeveloped piece of land on which it could start with a clean slate. It settled on a 77-acre site between Woodstock and Saugerties. And then its problems began.

While initially slow to take notice and build support, the anti-Terramor movement in recent months has gained both momentum and sophistication. Fund-raising to hire scientific and legal talent by now has generated nearly $40,000. The group’s online presence is rich with documentation and resource materials. And its arguments are becoming more refined, homing in on what may be the project’s greatest weakness: an unyielding terrain.

“I think the real surprise for Terramor was not the neighbors. I think the surprise was that the blank canvas they purchased was on bedrock that made septic impossible, contained wetlands that made wastewater difficult to release and included an endangered species that needed a protected habitat,” said Susan Paynter, a leader of the local opposition. “The neighbors are the least of their problems.”

While all that is daunting enough, another argument still shaping up in Saugerties has more widespread implications: that all this talk about “glamping” is ultimately deceitful. That to describe a project as having “campsites” occupied by “temporary structures,” as KOA has done in its presentations, is at best disingenuous when those “temporary structures” have 600-square-foot footprints and are erected on wooden platforms with plumbing and electricity. The Terramor “tents,” while superficially qualifying for that label because the outer shell is canvas, have wooden interior walls, ceramic-floored showers with twin shower heads and, in some cases, a second bedroom in which to stick the kids.

In that respect, glamping “tents” are another aspect of the industry’s efforts, similar to its embrace of park model RVs, to push the limits on what kinds of dwellings it can erect with minimal tax and regulatory liabilities. “Temporary” structures—one because it has a canvas shell, the other because it still has wheels attached to its chassis—in most jurisdictions aren’t subject to real estate taxes. They don’t have to conform to zoning restrictions that would apply to fixed structures, and they don’t have to meet HUD or other housing regulations. And while glamping tents are less durable than park models, they can be larger (park models are limited to 14-foot widths and 400 square feet), are substantially cheaper and can be more readily tarted up as glamorous camping accommodations.

And for now, at least, they can charge novelty prices of $300 and up per night.

That lure is so great that the glamping silliness has exploded. Even as it battles the Saugerties crowd, KOA is simultaneously developing a third Terramor resort, also in New York, and this time it’s reverting to its original approach of converting a former KOA campground. The Lake Placid/White Face Mountain KOA in Wilmington, closed for the season in October, is now being “moved up the road” 2.4 miles, according to KOA, and will reopen in the spring—albeit with fewer than half as many sites. Meanwhile the former site, on Fox Farm Road, is being repurposed as a Terramor Outdoor Resort, with 80 glamping sites, a main lodge with a restaurant, a pool, pavilion, wellness cabin and staff housing.

The Wilmington plans, it should be noted, call for glamping sites that “will consist of both insulated tents and ‘hard-sided’ units,” which the design narrative explains are “to resemble a tent, but with walls and a roof” so they can be used in winter. In other words, ersatz tents of up to 900 square feet—hard-sided “tents” imitating “glamping tents” imitating the kind of tents that you can buy at REI, in a regressive progression whose next step can be nothing less than a motel shaded by a large piece of canvas strung from a series of telephone poles.

Meanwhile, underscoring that this is not just KOA running amok, its Bar Harbor Terramor Resort may be about to get some competition across the bay, in nearby Lamoine. Clear Sky Resorts, a glamping outfit based in Arizona, wants planning board approval for a 90-site “dome glamping camp” with an onsite restaurant, pool, spa, wedding venue and employee housing, but town officials kicked back its application earlier this month, saying it provided incomplete information about water and sewer use. Clear Sky supposedly will be back Feb. 6 with a second effort.

As with KOA’s “tents,” the camping domes Clear Sky wants to erect are huge—660 square feet—and an additional 13 domes intended for staff lodging, wedding venues, a restaurant and other uses presumably will be even larger.

Back in Saugerties, local residents are pushing the planning board to request a State Environmental Quality Review Act assessment from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation—an outcome that could result in KOA having to prepare a draft environmental impact statement. KOA has until Feb. 21 to respond to the volley of concerns it received last week at the planning board hearing, with board members saying it will take months to reach some kind of decision—so stay tuned. There’s more needless drama to come.

A Clear Skies “glamping dome,” which because of its shape (a 28-foot diameter) has an even bigger footprint than one of KOA’s glamping tents.

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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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