RVs as Swiss Army knives of housing

Part of a two-mile-long line of RVs parked along a frontage road for Highway 101 in Marin County, California, reflective of a growing affordability crisis in housing throughout the U.S.

Swiss Army knives have been promoted for decades as the epitome of versatile utility. Carrying one in your pocket, you can have an arsenal of handy tools at your disposal—not just a knife blade or two, but if you’re so inclined, various screwdrivers, a bottle opener, can opener, corkscrew, metal saw, metal file . . . on and on to absurd lengths, including a toothpick, tweezers and magnifying glass, depending on how much you want to spend. The scissors aren’t worth a damn, and the Leatherman multitool eventually demonstrated what a folding pair of pliers should look like, but you can still shell out more than a hundred bucks for 6.5 ounces of 33 “essential features.”

So it is with RVs, which at one time (and not so long ago, either), were little more than hard-sided tents on wheels. But as with Swiss Army knives, which “evolved” from basic tools to gussied-up toys, you can get anything from a minimalist model to one with as many extras as you care to underwrite, progressing from an ice chest and Coleman stove all the way up to house-size refrigerators, sinks and showers with running water and flush toilets, microwaves and induction cooktops, flat panel TVs, electric levelers, gas furnaces . . . on and on to absurd lengths, including heated floors and washers and dryers.

All that frippery gets sold in the name of both comfort and versatility, in the same way that Swiss Army knives are pitched as the ultimate survival tool to urban dwellers who almost never will be in a situation that puts them to the test. Thanks to the many, many “upgrades” that have gone into “improving” today’s RVs, you can “enjoy nature” without actually getting into it, much as you can enjoy the outdoors in a zoo or at an aquarium, staring at other life forms through glass or bars; just haul your metal, plastic and glass cocoon from one Eden to another, marveling at nature’s bounty from the comfort of your marvelously appointed environment.

Okay. To each his or her own, and if that’s how you choose to spend your money and time, the proper American response is to say “so be it.” Freedom! But the thing is, this isn’t just about individual choice. All those hundreds of thousands of decisions to buy an RV with bells and whistles are rapidly becoming a socially warping phenomenon. And unlike Swiss Army knives, which even in the tens of millions are an insignificant addition to the social landscape, RVs have a distortion effect more comparable to that of the automobile.

There is, first, the impact they have on the physical landscape itself, both directly—because of their increasing weight and size, as well as their consequential increased gas consumption—and indirectly, primarily through the ancillary development of campgrounds and other support services. Those two million or so RVs sold since the start of the pandemic have sparked an enormous land rush by investors looking to cash in on the next big thing, and they’re not content to build what once was considered an “average” size RV park, of 100 or so sites. As this blog has repeatedly observed, the norm now is 300, 350, 400 sites—or much, much more.

Earlier this month, for example, the Daytona Beach City Commission in Florida signed off on revised plans for an RV park it had initially approved only a few months ago. The original plan called for 480 sites, which is very big by any measure; the revision, however, boosts that to 1,200. Public opinion on the decision was split along familiar lines, with those in opposition fretting about increased traffic and the effect on local wildlife, including bears (yes, bears—in central Florida), gopher tortoises and sandhill cranes. But for those favoring the increase it all boils down to the anticipated economic boost from increased tourism, and that’s a trump card that all too often wins the day.

Or consider the Hobson’s choice confronting residents of the optimistically named New Hope, Tennessee, where the owners of a 110-acre farm have had their property on the market for two years. Land-rich and cash-poor, they’re all too ready to sell it to an RV park developer who—if all goes as proposed—eventually will create 400 or more RV sites in a town with fewer than 900 residents. Those who turned out Monday for a public meeting on the matter clearly were torn between their understanding of why the farm is up for sale and of just how thoroughly such a sale will disrupt their lives—although as one participant noted, an RV park has got to be better than a Chinese battery factory. Or a chicken plant.

A low bar, indeed.

But it’s not just their environmental impact that makes RVs so disruptive. Marketed as a complete home package, they increasingly get promoted as actual residences, resulting in blurred distinctions and legal challenges. In Baldwin County, Alabama, for instance, the owner of a mobile home park currently is arguing with local officials and the state attorney general about their refusal to permit RVs on his property because that would violate county subdivision regulations. As the aggrieved park owner points out, RVs already are a common feature in mobile home parks across the county, so why shouldn’t he allowed to add a few spots for the RVs of construction workers hired for a new aluminum and recycling plant?

Indeed, as this blog also has observed, the Alabama dispute about RVs vs. mobile homes is going on all around the country. The irony is that this changing perception, in which RVs have morphed from recreational vehicles to residential ones, is actually putting the squeeze on the RV parks themselves—or, more accurately, on the RVers who want to stay at campgrounds because they’re, you know, camping. It’s telling, in this regard, that the latest quarterly report from Sun Communities attributes its strong financial results, in part, to its “transient-to-annual RV conversions of 524 sites”—that is, to 524 RV sites that are now filled with RVers who aren’t going anywhere. That’s swell for campground owners who no longer have to fret about low occupancy rates, but not so great for RVers looking for a site for the night.

The growing acceptance of RVs as acceptable—if not exactly desirable—housing has filtered all the way down to the economic stratum in which the thought of an RV vacation is as fanciful as dreams of dining on crêpes suzette in Paris. The progression through which homeless people have gone from sleeping on steam grates or under newspapers to pitching tents to living in battered vans, travel trailers and Class Cs has proceeded with breathtaking speed, reintroducing us within a decade to a world of Hoovervilles and shanty towns once associated with the Great Depression.

Consider the picture at the top of this post, taken by a San Francisco Chronicle photographer in one of the country’s most affluent counties, where the median household income is $131,000. As one of the couples living in a trailer parked alongside the road told the newspaper’s reporter, there are times when having an RV with a bathroom and kitchen—even though without refrigeration or running water—can make them forget they’re homeless.

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KOA gives up on explaining itself

Following the public relations debacle KOA created for itself earlier this year, when it finally threw in the towel over its misbegotten idea for a glampground in New York’s Catskills, the campground juggernaut apparently has decided to zip its corporate lip. Whereas it once boldly proclaimed development plans for its Terramor brand of glamping resorts, currently still limited to a single facility in Maine opened in 2020, KOA is now saying nothing at all about two projects still in the hopper, or whether it has plans for additional sites.

Of the two ongoing projects, the more likely to succeed appears to be a $28.5 million Terramor planned for the Adirondacks, in upstate New York. As reported here back in January, the proposed 80-site glampground would avoid much of the controversy KOA generated in the Catskills by repurposing an existing KOA campground in Wilmington instead of developing a brand new location. That campground, the Lake Placid/Whiteface Mountain KOA, was “moved” 2.4 miles up the road last October and reopened this spring, albeit with only 31 RV sites. More, undoubtedly, will follow.

The vacated KOA campground, meanwhile, has the advantage of having already cleared many regulatory hurdles—although not all. As reported last week in the Adirondack Explorer, both the Adirondack Park Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have been soliciting public comment, with the DEC evaluating the project for a wastewater discharge permit. The APA, meanwhile, which oversees public and private development within Adirondack Park, is reviewing the proposal’s “25% expansion of an existing tourist accommodation”—one indication of glamping’s more robust environmental footprint.

Tellingly, KOA declined to respond to inquiries about its plans from the Adirondack Explorer beyond an anodyne assurance that the company “will carry on its mission of connecting people to the outdoors and each other.” The stonewall was blatant enough to elicit a surprised comment from Wilmington Supervisor Roy Holzer, who supports the Terramor venture and thinks KOA “should be keeping the public informed and building excitement for their project,” the Explorer reported. Instead, the Explorer article appears to be the only news report about the project in several months, and even it put in a tardy appearance, publishing on April 20—the deadline for public comments to the DEC. The Adirondack Park Agency, meanwhile, is accepting comments until May 4.

While the communications black-out in New York has succeeded thus far in allowing KOA to fly under the radar, the weather is a bit stormier—literally as well as figuratively—at its other announced Terramor venture, at Midpines in Mariposa County, California. Although it filed a preapplication proposal more than 16 months ago to build two major campgrounds straddling the road that access the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, including a 400-site KOA resort and an 80-90 site Terramor, KOA has yet to follow up with an actual application. Nor has it followed through with promises of additional public meetings after a “coffee and conversation” meeting with local residents last June that left many “uncertain and unhappy,” according to a local newspaper.

But nature abhors a vacuum. While one extreme weather event after another battered the western Sierra foothills—forest fires, record-breaking snowfalls and now widespread flooding, prompting the National Park Service to close Yosemite’s campgrounds starting tomorrow—a similarly extreme human storm has been building among local residents, enhanced in no small degree by KOA’s aloof approach. A grassroots group calling itself Mariposans Against KOA and Terramor has been gifted with the lawn signs used by KOA’s opponents in the Catskills, which it has been erecting locally, and has created a Facebook page where the current hot topic is the amount of water KOA would be sucking out of the ground—five times as much as is used by Midpines residents.

Given the extraordinarily challenging environmental considerations KOA has had to take into account this past year, it’s not inconceivable that it might be having second thoughts about its Mariposa County plans. Then again, this is not a company that backs down gracefully. Three years after opening its Bar Harbor Terramor to mixed reviews, and with earlier projections of having three such glamping resorts up and running by 2025 increasingly in doubt, KOA seems to have decided that the less said the better. Unfortunately, that also means that a lot of people may feel ambushed when the other shoe drops.

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Cacapon RV park booted—for now

Just days after a court challenge successfully blocked a public hearing into a West Virginia proposal to build an RV campground at Cacapon State Park, the state has decided to shelve the idea altogether—for now. The about-face comes in the wake of growing weekly protests from area residents and park supporters, angered by the state’s announced goal of making the campground a profit center, and by the proposals it attracted, including one for a major facility of 350 RV sites and numerous recreational amenities.

The decision was disclosed yesterday by a state senator representing the area and rejects all three proposals that had been submitted by the March 1 deadline, marking a significant setback for Blue Water Development, which has been chasing the project for at least 18 months. As reported this past week by Morgan County USA, an online news outlet based in the state’s eastern panhandle, the Ocean City, MD-based developer was pursuing the idea of a large RV park at Cacapon at least as far back as September, 2021—six months before the state legislature approved an eleventh-hour bill that opened the door to commercial development of state lands.

“Attached is a draft concept for the RV Park at Cacapon we did for Bluewater (Blue Water),” a civil engineer wrote in an email on Sept. 28, 2021 to Steven McDaniel, then the head of the state’s Division of Natural Resources, as reported by Morgan County USA. “They wanted us to pass it along to you and see if this area still works and what the next steps would be.” The draft concept called for an RV campground of more than 300 sites, to be developed behind the park’s Nature Center.

Last June, less than three months after the legislature created Blue Water’s opportunity to get into Cacapon, company CEO Todd Burbage told Mike Gast, then an editor with the online magazine RVtravel, that a lot of state and federal parks were in dire need of infrastructure improvements—and by “infrastructure” he wasn’t talking about roads or bridges or even wifi, which is how most people would define the term. Gast, no slouch, apparently picked up on the inference. “Would Blue Water be in the market for taking over and running some national park campgrounds or state park campgrounds?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Burbage eagerly replied. “We’re actually in high level talks with one of the mid-Atlantic states right now. They’re actually being wildly helpful with us.” Although Burbage acknowledged that government does a good job of protecting “beautiful parcels of land,” he added that “when it comes to providing services along the level of what you and I expect, they just don’t have the expertise in it.”

Asked about that exchange earlier this month, Burbage insisted he’d had “zero communication” with West Virginia’s elected officials about Cacapon. Yet there’s no question that Blue Water was primed and ready to go when the Cacopon request for proposals (RFP) was issued last December—indeed, Blue Water was the only applicant from beyond the panhandle, raising a question of how widely the state had advertised its RFP. Moreover, one of the two other “proposals” came from a nearby competing RV campground that’s still being developed and which amounted to a request that the Cacapon venture be deep-sixed. The third proposal, meanwhile, came from a campground operator with no development experience and on its face failed to meet the state’s minimum requirements.

While Burbage has danced around the issue of his company’s behind-the-scenes machinations, the Blue Water proposal in fact included a 350-site campground near the Nature Center—just as described in the 2021 email. And while the proposal also included a 240-site alternative in a different part of the park, neither suggestion went down well with local residents who treasure Cacapon’s rugged beauty and more rustic vibe. “The theme-park style proposal from RV campground developer Blue Water is obviously a successful model for their private enterprise,” editorialized the weekly newspaper Morgan Messenger. “It just doesn’t fit inside Cacapon State Park.”

While Morgan County USA chipped away at the good ol’ boy relationship between Blue Water and state park officials, local residents and park supporters became increasingly outspoken in their opposition. An initial meeting March 27 to protest Blue Water’s ambitions drew a crowd of 70 or so, which grew to approximately 90 at an April 3 rally and more than 120 on April 10. Even more were expected for the April 18 hearing, before a court order cancelled it, and yesterday’s announcement that the Division of Natural Resources was rejecting all three RFPs suggests that the campground idea is dead. Unless, of course, it gets resurrected down the road.

For now, however, the division has decided to do what it should have done from the outset: listen to its constituents. An online survey, open for 30 days, asks respondents to provide their ideas for “camping or additional recreational amenities,” both throughout the state and at Cacapon specifically. Those who complete the 10-minute survey will be entered in a random drawing for a free, two-night stay at the state campground of the winner’s choosing. The division, meanwhile, promises to “consider future projects in light of the public comments received.”

Color me skeptical, given all the influence-peddling history here, but at least it’s a nod in the right direction.

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Rural dilemma: big hope or big hype?

The other shoe has dropped in New Hope, Tennessee. As reported yesterday in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the mystery RV park that has prompted so much local angst over the past month is being planned by an Arizona-based company that is relatively new to RV campgrounds but has notably big plans.

Although the Free Press identifies the developer as Red Moon Development, Red Moon appears to be a general contractor whose primary business is construction of high-end luxury homes. However, it also has built at least two Red Moon RV parks that subsequently were renamed and are operated by Scottsdale-based “CRR: A Lifestyle Company,” founded in 2018 for “delivering lifestyle destinations through luxury RV Resorts and Manufactured Housing Neighborhoods,” according to its website. Those properties include the 413-site Verde Ranch RV Resort in Camp Verde, AZ, opened in 2019; and the 265-site River Sands RV Resort near Quartzite, AZ, which opened earlier this year.

Also in the works for CRR are the Coachella Lakes RV Resort, with more than 400 sites on 80 acres near Palm Springs, CA; and the Savannah Lakes RV Resort, which will have more than 300 sites. Both are projected to open later this season. The size and scale of all four properties suggest that the 900 or so residents of New Hope—a wide spot on two-lane Route 156 that has one Dollar General, two beauty shops and a meat processing business—may be on the road to having their world turned upside down, for better and worse.

While stressing that all of its plans for New Hope are still in an extremely preliminary stage, Red Moon already has thrown out some facts and figures for how it envisions the 110-acre farm being developed: a $30 million RV resort with 250 RV sites initially, later to be expanded to more than 400, targeting RVers who would stay seven to 21 days. In keeping with CRR’s other properties, the New Hope site could expect “a set of amenities ranging from clubhouses, pools, laundry buildings, pickleball courts, spas and showers,” as well as a “pond element” and a check-in/general store, according to Red Moon architect Aaron Hillman. Although Hillman did not mention any development along the Tennessee River, that presumably also would be in the works.

These and other aspects of Red Moon’s proposal will be subjected to a vigorous discussion at a town meeting Monday, April 24, when the mayor will be given a petition opposing any zoning changes needed to accommodate the development. Town residents also are expected to raise questions about increased traffic on their rural roads and increased demand on their volunteer fire department and two-man police department. And while a real estate broker working on the deal claims utilities to the RV park would be provided by South Pittsburg, which is on the other side of the river, it hasn’t escaped the notice of New Hope residents that their town was incorporated in 1974 specifically to avoid being absorbed by its larger neighbor.

Still, the usual promises of unexpected prosperity are being dangled before New Hope’s residents, with proponents insisting the project will be good for the community, projecting that it could bring in $1 million a year in hospitality tax revenue. Whether that will be enough to offset the inevitable increase in community costs presumably also will be questioned Monday, as well as the trade-off involved in turning a relatively tranquil corner of Marion County into a resort playground.

While New Hope residents will be looking for answers about a mega-RV project Monday, those potentially affected by a similar project in West Virginia are going to have to wait a while. Several proposals submitted to the state’s Department of Natural Resources to develop an RV campground at Cacapon Resort State Park were scheduled for a public hearing this past Tuesday, April 18, but the hearing has been postponed indefinitely, following legal claims that scheduling of the hearing had not complied with public notice requirements.

A court order calling off the hearing was issued just hours before it was scheduled to start. At this writing, a new hearing date has not been set. At issue are three proposals to create an RVing option at the state park, ranging all the way up to a Blue Water plan for a 350-site campground plus numerous amenities.

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Mystery money behind 400-site park

New Hope, Tennessee, lies a half-hour drive west of Chattanooga. Move it two miles south and it would be in Alabama; 4 miles southeast and it would be in Georgia. Fewer than 900 people live here, and few people are familiar with its most notable attraction, a duplicate of a shrine that honors the apparitions of Our Lady in Banneaux, Belgium. New Hope is, in other words, an easily overlooked and secluded oasis—if not for its misfortune of being located on the banks of the Tennessee River.

But being located along one of the South’s most iconic rivers means it was only a matter of time before someone decided that what New Hope really needs is a whole lot of visitors. As reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, three investors and a real estate agent talked with the town’s mayor, Mark Myers, in early March or late February about building a 400+site RV park—a park so big, in other words, that its occupants would outnumber town residents. But Myers could not—or would not—identify the investors, except to state that two of them were from the west coast and that “they’re moving from west to east building campgrounds.”

The idea of having upwards of 1,200 RVers plunked down in their midst has not gone over well with the locals. Following a March 27 aldermen meeting at which Myers disclosed the discussions, which had been going on for “a month or so,” a petition has been circulating to oppose zoning changes that the project would require. Local residents have questioned the proposed campground’s impact on town services, including water, sewer and electricity. “How’s it going to help New Hope?” asked resident Mike Binkley. “Are we going to be spending money and not receiving no money? Are we going to have to put police officers on, the fire department, or whatever?”

In some respects such questions are premature, as the mystery investors apparently haven’t yet purchased the 110-acre farm they’ve been eyeing, much less explained their plans beyond mention of a swimming pool and store. Yet in many ways the New Hope venture is proceeding according to a depressingly familiar playbook: out-of-town investors move in quietly, glad-hand and play rope-a-dope with key decision makers, and try to ingratiate themselves before the natives get wind of what’s coming and get all agitated. And although Myers said he had asked “some” questions in his several discussions with the investors, he clearly has no future as a prosecutor—or a reporter. Although he asked, for example, whether the investors had other properties that town officials could look at, he was told the nearest was in Arizona.

No mention, in the Free Press article, that Myers knew the names of such other properties, or had looked at them online. Nor did the Free Press push Myers for the names of the investors or of the real estate agent with whom they were working, and with whom Myers also met.

If this proposal moves forward—the next town meeting to discuss the proposal is scheduled for April 24—it will have an enormous impact on New Hope, but will in every other respect be unremarkable. This is, alas, the “new normal” for the campground industry, which increasingly is dominated by private and institutional money whose overriding concern is return on investment. Bigger campgrounds result in proportionally bigger returns, which is why new ventures almost invariably start at 250 sites—or more. And a swimming pool and a store are only the beginning of what will be jammed into a new campground of 400 or more sites, the better to feed, amuse and cosset all those transient visitors.

If campground investors “moving from west to east” sounds like a description of an invasion of locusts, there may be a reason for that.

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Home sweet . . . shipping container?

It’s gotten to the point where the notion of a “campground” is becoming indistinguishable from that of a subdivision. True, the housing units at so-called campgrounds and RV parks are—mostly— smaller than their suburban counterparts. And their settings may be more “rustic,” perhaps with gravel roads instead of asphalt, and with such camping flourishes as outdoor fire pits or communal swimming pools. But commercial camp sites, whether for RVs or dwellings, also tend to be more closely packed together than the houses in most subdivisions, and the inexplicable fondness of many campers for lighting up their sites means starry nights at a campground will be as elusive as in any Levittown.

What brings this to mind is a couple of news items April 7 in RV Business, an online industry magazine, that illustrate the ever-widening definition of what constitutes an acceptable campgound rental unit. The first announced the “successful splash test” of something called a Bungalow Boat, developed by a sister company of Blue Water, an aggressively expanding developer and manager of RV parks and marinas. The Bungalow Boat is little more than a cabin on pontoons, suitable only for being moored in calm water, but is being promoted as “a true glamping experience”—which is to say, as an overpriced shelter that will make money only as long as “campers” are convinced they’re paying for an unusually authentic experience.

The other RV Business article that caught my attention breathlessly introduced something called the Gateway Park Model RV, manufactured by ekō Solutions LLC, “specializing in state-of-the-art eco-friendly dwellings.” Its faux Scandinavian name notwithstanding, ekō is headquartered just outside of Indianapolis; its eco-friendly dwellings are repurposed shipping containers.

There’s nothing wrong—indeed, it’s quite possibly praiseworthy—to take a 20-foot-long shipping container that has outlived its initial function and rework it into a habitable space. But it may be a stretch to label the result as “perfect for the tiny home lover or on-the-go camper who wants the amenities of a home away from home,” which is a lot to lay on a metal box that at 160 square feet is smaller than most travel trailers and easily twice as heavy. “On-the-go” possibly, but not easily. Perhaps there’s a market for these on the West Coast, where cities are scrambling for low-cost housing to shelter a growing army of the homeless, but to call them “park model RVs” suggests that ekō Solutions has a more upscale market in mind.

Recycled “camping” at its finest: the Gateway Park Model RV. Ah, nature!

Meanwhile, the more conventional park model industry is rolling along quite nicely, even as traditional RV manufacturers have seen production plunge 50% from year-earlier levels. As Dick Grymonprez, director of park model sales at one of the country’s biggest park model manufacturers, Champion Home Builders, told Woodall’s Campground Magazine last month, business for the segment is up 15% this year, driven in part by the continued building and acquisition of campgrounds by industry heavyweights like Sun Communities, Cove and Equity Lifestyles. “All the big community owners are growing their RV portfolios and putting in RV parks, so they need rentals. And they’re buying park models for rentals,” he explained.

Park models are the Trojan horses of the campground industry (as I’ve written before, here and here), a way of smuggling small houses onto properties that ostensibly were built for the more transient pastime of camping—a blurring of the line between residential and recreational communities. Layer on the upselling phenomenon of glamping, from bungalow boats to tricked-out safari tents, domes, yurts, treehouses, prairie schooners, teepees, Hobbit houses and other fantastical dwellings, and all of a sudden the RV nomads of yore find themselves boxed out and hemmed in by the new urban settlers.

It won’t take much more of this before a lot of prospective RV buyers will suddenly realize they don’t have to make a 10- or 15-year investment to go “camping” when campgrounds are providing such alternatives. True, on a per-night basis a park model or glamping unit will cost significantly more than an RV site, but for anyone not looking to be an RVing full-timer, the overall cost favors traveling by car and staying at what amounts to a decentralized hotel room disguised as something else. In this way, campground owners may already be stealing business from RV manufacturers, who in any case have done themselves no favors with their years of shoddy workmanship.

So look for still more variations on the theme, more innovative ways to put walls and a roof around beds and bathrooms while marketing the result as an unprecedented wow! way to go “camping.” Eventually all the combinations and permutations will be exhausted and the public, wowed no longer, will move on, the campgrounds they leave behind looking like those mining towns that became overrun with tumbleweeds once the ore played out.

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How many red flags can you ignore?

Enter “Whispering Oaks Luxury RV Park” in a Goggle search field, and the first entry to pop up will be for the home page for just such an establishment, together with a notice that you can secure your slot at this premiere facility with just a $500 deposit—or “lock in the full year for the low price of $3100.”

Which right there should set off alarm bells. A full year of camping for just $3,100? At a “luxury RV” park?

Actually clicking on the link should set off a second round of alarms, with the home page boldly announcing that “Whispering Oaks RV Parks [dropping the pretensions to luxury but inexplicably becoming part of a chain ] will be opening on March 1st, 2023 on some of Mountain Home’s most majestic lakeside acreage”—that is, more than a month ago. That’s alarm-worthy because, while the site goes on to describe 30/50 amp full hook-up sites, 10’x12′ poured concrete patios, free wifi and numerous amenities “that are in development and are included as they are completed,” the truth is that essentially everything is in development. This luxury RV park, it turns out, has yet to get permits for water, septic or basic engineering.

That isn’t to say that work on building the 47-acre Mountain Home, Arkansas park hasn’t started. Apparently that began more than six months ago, lack of permits be damned, as developer Eddie Brian Sides of Reeds Springs, Missouri, freely admitted at a Baxter County Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing Feb. 27. Indeed, Sides had already been slapped with a notice of violation by the Arkansas Office of Water Quality back in November, which cited him for operating a large construction site without a required stormwater permit and for failing to use any erosion control methods while clearing the site.

But that isn’t all. Angered local residents claim Sides has been illegally cutting down trees on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property, installing septic tanks without permits, lying to county officials about the timing of the permits he did pull and threatening public access to Norfolk Lake, a major recreational waterbody. And, of course, there are the more pedestrian—but very real—concerns that have been tossed into the mix, such as storm water runoff issues and inevitable increases in traffic.

And then there’s this: Eddie Brian Sides, the brains behind this venture, apparently defrauded three Joplin, Missouri women out of a combined $29,000 a bit more than a decade ago, when—operating as Brian Sides Contracting—he accepted advance payments for construction materials to repair their homes after a tornado devastated the city. When he didn’t perform the work, the state’s attorney general sued him and a Jasper County Circuit Court Judge ordered him to repay the doubly-victimized women, as well as pay an additional $16,000 in various court costs and legal fees.

Thanks to the Mountain Home Observer, a modest but plucky on-line newspaper that dug up this information, we also know that Sides was embroiled in several other court cases involving contract non-performance, suggesting a disturbing pattern of behavior. But Sides insists there must be another Eddie Brian Sides running around the Ozarks, doing bad things and unfairly besmirching his name. “That is not me,” he told an Observer reporter when asked about the various fraud accusations. “There is another guy that done that.”

Here’s the kicker. Despite all these indications that Eddie Brian Sides plays fast and loose with facts and has little respect for land use or sanitary regulations, the Baxter commissioners nevertheless voted to approve his “plans” for the RV park—just so long as he gets those darn permits. In other words, the “planning” part of the commission’s authority— in a region that hews to the idea that people should be able to develop their property any damn way they wish—seems to be limited to checking compliance boxes and not actually evaluating development proposals or the people behind them. And while local residents have been pitching a fit over the proposed RV park, their chief concern seems to be that they not lose access to the lake.

Those same local residents and their representatives will end up living with the consequences of their short-sightedness, but RVers should take heed of all the red flags thrown on this play. An outdated and clearly misleading website is only the most outward sign of a sketchy operation, but it clearly signals what the oaks are whispering: “Mind your wallet.”

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John Denver, rolling over in his grave

You might think that a state’s Division of Natural Resources would be devoted to clean air, clean water and sustainable outdoor recreation. But what do you suppose such an agency will emphasize when it’s an offshoot of that state’s Department of Commerce? West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources won’t leave you guessing: it’s all about the money.

Last March, just an hour before adjourning for the year, West Virginia’s legislature enacted a law that for the first time opens virtually all state land to commercial development, empowering the director of the Natural Resources Division to enter into third-party contracts to build and operate recreational facilities in all state forests and all but one state park. Passage came despite objections that the law gives the director too much power, that it could reduce the affordability of state parks and that it could result in the development of casinos, racetracks and other outsized attractions at odds with the parks’ nature-based appeal.

Pish-posh, replied the bill’s supporters. State law has numerous provisions requiring the protection of “natural areas,” as anyone driving through the state’s coal-mining regions can attest.

By last December, it was clear that someone wasn’t wasting any time. Meeting with state legislators during their interim session, Acting Commerce Secretary James Bailey could confidently assert that plans for “a very large campground” were in the works. But precisely which park was being targeted Bailey wouldn’t say, even when asked directly by Delegate Ruth Rowan if it was Cacapon Resort State Park. Nor would he confirm or deny that such a campground would have to include at least 100 sites to be profitable, despite Rowan’s insistence that anything bigger than 50 or 60 sites would raise concerns about overcrowding.

Just days later, however, Rowan got her answer. Cacapon was indeed the targeted park. And even 100 sites seem unlikely.

For those unfamiliar with the area, Cacapon Resort State Park is approximately nine miles from Berkeley Springs and in easy proximity to the Washington-Baltimore megaplex. As a recreational facility it dates back to 1933, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built an 11-room log inn and a dam to create a small lake. These days, however, it has been recast as a “full-service, four-season resort,” a 6,600-acre expanse that includes a recently constructed 74-room lodge and conference center, an additional, recently renovated 46-room lodge, 31 vacation cabins and a 12-room inn, plus a slew of recreational amenities that include a full spa, championship golf course and a comprehensive set of mountain biking trails.

With all that, however, Cacapon has no facilities for campers to park their Winnebagos, Prevosts and Airstreams— creating a “unique business opportunity,” as the state helpfully pointed out in the request for proposals (RFP) it issued in mid-December. So unique, in fact, that the state has no idea what it actually wants. As the RFP makes clear, basically anything goes: where in the park such a campground should be located, how big it should be, what amenities it should provide—nothing is out of bounds, as long as it provides “the highest possible return on investment.”

Yet despite such a blank slate, only three proposals were submitted by the March 1 deadline—although a more diverse set of ideas is hard to imagine

On the modest end of the scale, and clearly most responsive to Delegate Rowan’s concerns about overcrowding, is a proposal from River & Trail Outfitters of Harpers Ferry to build just 50 RV sites, with gravel roads, plus a few additional amenities, such as an airsoft course. Yet of the three applicants River & Trails has the thinnest resume, apparently limited to operating a small city-owned campground in nearby Brunswick, despite the RFP’s requirement that applicants have designed, constructed and operated a minimum of five major campgrounds.

Then there’s Blue Water Development Corp., the very antithesis of River & Trail Outfitters. Growing by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, Blue Water owns and manages campgrounds, marinas and other outdoor recreational facilities up and down the East Coast and out to Texas, Colorado and other points west. The ambitious size of its growing portfolio is matched only by the size of its properties: these are not mom-and-pop operators. So it’s not surprising that its glossy submission calls for an “RV Resort” at either one of two different locations in Cacapon—one with 240 sites, the other with 350—each with an amenity “core” that would include a pool, water slides, cornhole, pickleball courts and golf car rentals. Not enough? There’s also a supplemental proposal for an “amenity area” that would include a lakeside beach, fishing piers, more water slides, a kayak dock and something called an “Aquabana.”

And, finally, there’s the “proposal” submitted by Scenic LLC, which opens with an apology before suggesting that West Virginia forget the whole idea of a campground in Cacapon. It turns out that for the past three years Scenic has been developing plans for its very own campground—a “market-leading, future-oriented RV campground”—on 400 acres that are “technically adjacent” to Cacapon State Park. And while it had not yet chatted with the state park system about its plans, “high-level planning briefs” had been conducted with a state senator, other state officials and the cabinet secretary of tourism. The left hand, apparently, did not know what the right hand was doing.

Too polite—or politically savvy—to point out that West Virginia’s government was putting its muscle behind a competing private sector venture, Scenic LLC nevertheless suggested that the state refrain from building any campground at Cacapon and instead consider a revenue-sharing “collaborative relationship.” As it further noted, “We believe this approach will be faster, more predictable, much less disruptive, and have a greater likelihood of success than a ‘design/build’ project within the boundaries of the park.” Oh, and as it happens, the campground that Scenic LLC is planning will be a KOA franchise, which it views as a plus—indeed, the bulk of its RFP is devoted to replicating KOA materials.

How all this will shake out is still anyone’s guess, but it’s the possibility of a 350-site campground that has local residents and park supporters most riled up. More than 70 of them met at the park’s upper lake last Monday to protest Blue Water’s proposal, and have vowed to keep meeting each Monday until an April 18 public hearing on the proposal. Given the state’s expressed desire to have Cacapon become “a major profit center,” however, Blue Water would seem to have the inside rail in this horse race: River and Trails Outfitters’ proposal is too small, even if it is more in keeping with a state park vibe. And Scenic LLC’s “collaborative relationship” translates into a 5% proposed revenue-sharing contribution, which on top of the additional 10% of revenues it will need to fork over to KOA, won’t leave it with a whole lot of wiggle room..

The West Virginia Department of Commerce, you can be sure, has much loftier ambitions than five cents on the dollar.

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