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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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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