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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Reflect on this: glamping to die for

Now you see it, now you don’t, in this example of a so-called “invisible cabin.” Manufactured by ÖÖD House, an Estonian company, the site-ready 227-square-foot unit can be yours for $125,000.

In the relentless pursuit of the next hip thing—the next glitzy, must-have, “wow” experience to foist on the camping public—it was only a matter of time before someone took the concept of “smoke and mirrors” to its inevitable conclusion.

Cue the mirrors.

The high-gloss end of the travel and leisure press has been all atwitter about the upcoming debut of the Mirror Hotel, about 20 miles north of Asheville, NC, featuring 18 mirrored “cabins” on a 55-acre site. Unlike the more modestly-sized unit pictured above, these accommodations will include two-story 1,500-square-foot units perched on stilts, each equipped with its own hot tub, patio with fire pit and pizza oven. Mirror Hotel, owner Joanna Cahill told Travel + Leisure, “is built to be everything people love about glamping without everything they don’t.”

So this is glamorous camping: 15-foot tall windows to soak in the view at a Mirror Hotel “cabin.

Sheathing buildings in reflective glass, highly polished steel and one-way mirrors is just the latest example of high-end developers seeking to create wow factors and “memorable experiences,” and hang the expense. Or as related on the ÖÖD House website, when founders Jaak and Andreas Tiik “wanted to go on a weekend hike they didn’t want the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ hotel experience—that was too boring,” so they came up with the ÖÖD “Signature House.” In the seven years since that fateful walk, their glass boxes have spread across Europe, into Iceland and on to the U.S. and Mexico.

Initially adopted in limited numbers—no doubt because they require a significant investment—“invisible cabins” can be found a handful at a time in early-adopter glamping resorts in Ontario, Tennessee and South Carolina, where they’re pitched as exquisitely rare and cleverly non-intrusive. Stay at “a unique, bucket-list experience in an inspiring environment that is guaranteed to lift your spirit,” coos one come-on. Mirrored cabins “are designed to be virtually invisible in the surrounding landscape, allowing guests to feel as close to nature as possible,” extols another. In short, goes the sales pitch, here’s your chance to be a trendy voyeur of Mother Nature without having to step out of your comfort zone.

But despite such green-washing, environmentalists have been calling out the claims as deceptive and misleading. In recent weeks, when Shared Estates, a Massachusetts developer, announced plans to incorporate 19 mirror houses among 72 rental units at a “campground”— shamelessly named the Greylock Glen Ecovillage—it wants to develop outside of Adams, Mass., the Massachusetts Audubon Society weighed in to protest that the design endangers wildlife. “Mirrored glass presents a severe hazard to birds,” wrote Jeffrey Collins, a society representative, to the Adams Board of Selectmen. Although the developer had claimed that a UV coating on the glass would reduce bird strikes by 70%, Collins pointed out that several hundred million birds are killed in the U.S. each year by colliding with windows.

“Birds do not perceive reflective glass—standard or mirrored—as a fatal barrier,” Collins wrote. “The Mirror Houses are designed specifically to ‘disappear’ into the landscape by reflecting surrounding vegetation. While this is a creative design concept, it is one that will without doubt lead directly to bird deaths through window strikes.” Even a 30% mortality rate “feels like an unnecessary introduction of a known hazard into a site that’s designed around connecting people with experiencing nature,” he added.

Indeed—but that’s not really what the mirror houses are all about, anyway. While Shared Estates announced last week that it was scrapping the concept, it had claimed earlier that “the mirrored units are critical to the economics of the project” because of their over-the-top occupancy rates at other glampgrounds. Losing the mirror houses means a “significant hit” that may not be offset by turning to another “eco-structure,” Shared Estates added, and may force an overall reduction in the final site plan.

What it boils down to, in other words, is another ratcheting up of the untenable tension between “glamorous” and “camping” driven, as always, by a thirst for higher financial returns. Mirrored cabins, while undeniably sleek in an airport-lounge sort of way, are a good way to “get close to nature” only if you think that includes watching birds fly directly at the glass separating you and them.

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The park-model scam gains steam

Spring arrives next week—and as surely as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano (this year’s festival will be March 25!), land developers armed with exquisitely rendered site plans and pulse-pounding economic projections will be descending on planning commissions and zoning boards coast-to-coast. Environmental disruption will be minimal, they’ll promise. Construction will be to the highest standards. Local shopkeepers will see an influx of new customers, tax coffers will be filled, and the people lucky enough to already be in the neighborhood will fatten and prosper.

And some of that may actually happen. Just don’t count on it, and especially not when the dream-spinners use sleight-of-hand to promote one thing while intending something else.

In southern Colorado, the dreams are being spun by Scottsdale, Az.-based Scott Roberts, owner of 11 RV resorts in five states. More recently he’s jumped on the glamping bandwagon, under the “Village Camp” label, which he describes as “an upscale outdoor resort company that combines oversized RV sites with luxury adventure cabins that can be rented or purchased as private getaway cabins.” Two such Village Camps have already opened, near Lake Tahoe in California and in Flagstaff, Arizona, and two more are in the works in Utah. Standard amenities include a steam room, fitness room, outdoor spa, swimming pool, amphitheater, playground, dog parks, outdoor fire pits, bistro with local microbrews, and a general store.

Now Roberts has his sights set on Colorado’s Animas Valley, where he’s purchased an option on a former 36-acre gravel pit that he would like to transform into a fifth, 306-site Village Camp. As with the other four properties, initial plans call for a mix of RV sites and “adventure cabins,” but the long-term goal is to convert a growing number of the RV pads to rental cabins, and eventually to sell as many of the cabins—currently offered at the Lake Tahoe property for just under $450,000—as possible. Which means, in essence, that Roberts is angling to create a series of high-dollar park-model communities without going through all the usual bureaucratic fuss that comes with building actual subdivisions.

But, of course, all that lies in a problematic future. What’s in the present is a proposal first floated at a La Plata County planning department meeting in early December, at which Roberts told area residents that only 49 cabins would be installed initially, but with plans eventually to have more cabins than RV sites. But these aren’t just “cabins,” he explained. They’re essentially tiny homes that meet the definition of an RV—thereby satisfying the less stringent zoning requirements for campgrounds—but are, he averred, the most expensive models ever produced by the factories from which Village Camps has been buying.

“This modular construction would be similar to having your own luxury hotel room,” helpfully added a planner working with Roberts, as reported in the Durango Herald. “The construction would look like some of our more high-end mountain homes here in Durango; it just happens to be smaller.” And just to drive the point home, Roberts chimed in with the claim that his resorts attract a more affluent class than one would expect to find at an RV park, mentioning several times the prevalence of six-figure Sprinter vans and Teslas on his properties.

That initial December meeting, in which the Herald reported that Roberts was greeted with a mixture of wariness and enthusiasm, was followed by a more divided planning commission hearing Jan. 12. A barrage of public comments, lasting well over an hour, included only a handful of Roberts supporters, with the rest objecting to the lack of more details, to the undefined increase in local highway traffic and to the impact of the park on the rural feel of the neighborhood. The planning board nevertheless voted, 3-2, to approve the next stage of the permitting process, clearing the way for Roberts to submit a preliminary plan that would respond to many of the concerns raised. Such a plan and permit application, Roberts said, will be forthcoming later this spring.

But in the interim, local opposition has gathered steam. The newly formed Animas Valley Action Coalition announced its existence this week and is seeking more support, contending that the planning commission is ignoring the county’s land-use plan. As argued by Dorothy Wehrly, one of the coalition’s founders, in a letter to the Herald editor, Roberts’ application should be for a “tiny home community” or a “manufactured home park,” both of which have more extensive permitting procedures, rather than for an “RV park.” Moreover, she added, Roberts is trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by proposing a 120- or 180-day occupancy limit for his cabins, whereas maximum length-of-stay under the county’s RV park rules is 60 days.

Whether the Animas coalition will generate the kind of local opposition that has greeted other recent glamping proposals is questionable: the environmental issues are not as stark in this instance as they have been elsewhere (how much more damage than a gravel pit can an RV park do?) and local opinion still seems more divided. As always, the devil will be in the details. But if nothing else, the Animas Valley case underscores yet again the Trojan-horse nature of park models, by which long-term housing can be introduced into a community in the guise of recreational vehicles. Need to meet the looser requirements of a commercial campground? No problem: park models are RVs. Want to sell “small luxury homes” for hundreds of thousands of dollars? No problem: park models can be decked out to look precisely so, and without having to conform to pesky HUD construction rules.

Finally, the sharp-eyed reader will have noticed that—as with most manufactured home parks—the “adventure cabins” that Roberts will be selling don’t come with the land on which they’re sitting. In addition, for the privilege of owning a tricked-out RV they’ll be paying $695 a month in rent, disguised as a “community fee.” And if the new owners want to recoup some of their investment by renting out “their” cabins when they’re not using them, that’s okay—provided the rentals are through the Village Camp management company, “to assure consistent guest experience.” For its troubles, the management company will claim half of the rental proceeds.

Financially incomprehensible as all that is, as evident when the glitz is stripped away, there undoubtedly are people with too much money and not enough horse sense who will snap up Roberts’ sugar plums. The question is whether Animas Valley will enable him to open up yet another confectionary shop—and what price it may pay for doing so.

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Glamp-zombie invades Joshua Tree

Lured ever onward by the siren song of rich returns, the bastard zombie known as “glamping” has reeled from one disastrous proposal to another, often without regard for the land it is trampling or the long-established locals it is shouldering aside. If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it’s the outsized contribution such misplaced proposals have made in bringing communities together, even if it is with pitchforks and torches.

The latest case in point was on display earlier this week in San Bernardino County, which while coping with historic snowfalls and flooding also is contending with a Beverly Hills developer’s proposal for a 75-site glampground in the high desert north of Yucca Valley. Flamingo 640, as the project is known, was first proposed two years ago for an area zoned for “rural living,” which permits single family homes and agriculture—as well as campgrounds and mobile home parks. The RoBott Land Company, no slouch, contends that Flamingo 640 is indeed a campground, regardless of what it looks like to the untutored eye, and that’s how its promoters persisted in describing it throughout a three-hour planning commission hearing Thursday.

But as other glamping proposals have demonstrated, the only tenuous connection such facilities have to “camping” is their use of tents for guest quarters—and that doesn’t mean the kinds of tents people associate with REI or Boy Scout hikes. Flamingo 640’s proposal includes 35 domed tents that are 16 feet in diameter, as well as twenty 850-square-foot “chalets” and twenty “camping lofts,” each encompassing 1,230 square-feet—the size of a small house. But that’s only the beginning: also in the plans are a camp store and reception area, eight restrooms, a 3,000 square-foot swimming pool and patio, two 3,600-square-foot “workshops,” a 5,500-square-foot “art barn,” a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and a 5,500-square-foot “agave bar.”

Then there’s a 2,400-square-foot yoga deck, four fire-pits with surrounding hardscape at 700 square-feet apiece, more than 25,00o square-feet of storage space and, yes, a 7,854-square-foot helipad—because isn’t that a standard campground feature? Combine all that with vaguely defined “gardens” covering 212,000 square-feet, 100 parking spaces and assorted paths and walkways, and you end up, as one local resident at the public hearing observed, with the equivalent of eight football fields’ worth of disturbed desert landscape. Or as another local declaimed, “It’s a bunch of luxury hotel rooms, permanent structures and activities all spread out across the desert.”

Nancy Ferguson of Jericho Systems, which has been designing the project for RoBott, responded weakly by insisting that Flamingo 640 is “a campground that also has resort amenities.” Yet even planning chairman Jonathan Weldy commented that “this sort of feels [like it has] a commercial size” quite out of character with the surrounding area.

Things could be worse: the original proposal also included a 25,000-seat amphitheater and 90-acre music festival area, along with 400 parking spaces. That’s been excised, in a failed effort to mollify local opponents, who instead see such ideas as proof of an outsider’s ignorance of the area’s fragility. Just a 20-minute drive from Joshua Tree National Park, the 640-acre site gets less than six inches of rain a year and is home to desert tortoises and burrowing owls, the former a threatened species, the latter “of special concern” and both vulnerable to soil-scraping development. The site also has hundreds of Joshua trees, which currently are candidates for listing as a threatened species but which the development application blithely claims can be transplanted when they’re in the way.

With the Flamingo 640 proposal percolating for almost two years, local opposition has had ample time to marshal an attack. Spearheading the resistance has been the Homestead Valley Community Council, joined by the Mojave Desert Land Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental and conservation groups, and which among other things has gathered more than 6,000 signatures on an opposition petition. Council president Justin Merino concluded his remarks by handing the commission “some light reading, if any of you are looking for a good read”—a thick binder crammed with 1,069 pages of pleas to deep-six the whole idea.

As might be expected, objections to Flamingo 640 run the gamut, from fears that traffic on “very dangerous” State Route 247 will become even more hazardous, to anger over further disruption of a rural environment, to resentment over outside financial interests profiting from the despoliation of land for which they have no affinity. But underneath it all bubbles a rage at the continued misrepresentation of such projects as “camping,” with all the back-to-nature overtones that implies. “To call this a ‘campground’ is a gross lie,” complained local resident Cordelia Reynolds. “Glamping is not camping,” and neither is a “destination resort,” which is also how Flamingo 640 has been described by its promoters.

in the end, the planning commission hearing dribbled to an anticlimax: despite repeated requests from chairman Weldy for a resolution from his fellow commissioners, none was forthcoming. In the pained silence that followed, he finally said that absent any motion, the Flamingo 640 application was denied without prejudice. That leaves RoBott Land Company just 10 days to appeal the planning commission’s inaction to the county board of supervisors—but because the application wasn’t actually denied, it also has the option of resubmitting the entire package at some future date.

Given the tenacious refusal of glamping zombies to die, Yucca Valley residents might wish to keep their torches and pitchforks close at hand.

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Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

There is great jubilation in New York’s Catskills region this week, on the news that KOA is walking away from a proposed 75-site glamping resort that faced growing local opposition. (See past posts here and here.) News of the unexpected about-face came in a terse three-sentence letter, dated Feb. 8, announcing that the company “has formally withdrawn its special use permit, site plan and subdivision applications.”

Signed by Jenny McCullough, senior director of marketing and operations for Terramor Outdoor Resort, the letter was received by the Saugerties planning board two weeks ahead of a meeting at which KOA was expected to respond to numerous concerns raised by area residents. “After careful evaluation, it was determined that the project did not meet criteria across several benchmarks to warrant moving forward,” McCullough wrote, without further elaboration. In response to subsequent emailed queries, McCullough gave assurances that the company has “no intention to resubmit at a later date,” but also confirmed that KOA still owns the 77-acre site and is “discussing our options internally” on how to proceed.

Planning board chairman Howard Post, meanwhile, responded to local residents by saying the board has “no idea” what KOA will do next. “Nothing to stop them from resubmitting,” he wrote. “They might sell . . . they gave no indication nor do they have to.”

But as it turns out, KOA/Terramor has bigger fish to fry—or bigger headaches with which to contend. Because even as it was plunging into the Catskills morass, it simultaneously was looking to develop a far larger and more ambitious project in the foothills of the High Sierra, just outside Yosemite National Park. Much more ambitious. According to the preapplication proposal it filed in December of 2021 with the Mariposa County Planning Board, KOA wants to build two resorts on a 993-acre property that straddles State Highway 140, a major access route for the park. The broad strokes include:

  • A KOA Resort would be located on 90 acres south of the highway, to include 400 full hook-up RV sites and 25 to 50 tent sites with water connections. A 10,000-square-feet building would house a check-in desk, restaurant, store, laundry, a meeting space and employee office space. Also located on the grounds would be a swimming pool and bathhouse, two playgrounds and “select employee housing.”
  • A Terramor Outdoor Resort would be built on 80 acres on the north side of the highway and would include 80 to 90 “conditioned glamping units,” also described as “tents [that] will incorporate standard amenities of a luxury hotel room including a full bathroom, electrical supply and climate control.” An 8,000-square-foot lodge would include a restaurant, meeting space and indoor pool, while other amenities would include a 2,000-square-foot open-air pavilion and a 1,500-square-foot wellness/spa center. As with its neighboring resort, the Terramor property also would include “select employee housing.”
  • The two resorts would have a combined 100 employees and would expect to have 800 guests a day at the KOA resort and 200 a day at Terramor. The two facilities would have a total of 525 on-site parking spaces and would consume up to 51,000 gallons of water a day.

A preapplication is by definition conceptual and short on details, giving county planners an opportunity to list the specific information they will require in a formal proposal. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when KOA got around to its first public presentation, a “coffee and conversation” meeting in mid-June last summer, the discussion was still vague enough that it “left many members of the community uncertain and unhappy,” according to a report in the Mariposa Gazette. But not to worry: local residents were assured more details would be forthcoming in a meeting later that summer or early fall.

Nature had other ideas. Mere weeks after the kaffeeklatsch, the Oak Fire sprang up literally next door to the Terramor/KOA site and consumed more than 19,000 acres before being wrestled into submission in mid August. (The Oak Fire, it should be noted, occurred less than a mile west of where the even more substantial Ferguson Fire ravaged 97,000 acres in 2018.) Somehow, the fall public presentations never occurred; what did occur was a request from the Mariposa County fire department at a board of supervisors meeting for the county to bite the bullet and start supplementing the virtually all-volunteer fire fighting force with paid staff. Four of the county’s 13 fire stations are unstaffed because of declining volunteer levels, while the only paid fire fighters have been the chief and his deputy.

More recently, nature let loose with a second volley, this time with the torrential rains that battered California for much of January. The resulting floods and erosion were even more pronounced in areas with recent burn scars, such as those left by the Oak Fire, with roads washed away and local residents left stranded for days on end. As icing on the cake, it turns out that Mariposa is the only county in California that does not participate in FEMA’s federal flood insurance program.

KOA has made no public pronouncements about any of these developments, or how they may affect its plans. Nonetheless, it has yet to file a formal proposal with Mariposa County, casting further doubt on its announced plans to have three Terramor resorts up and running by 2025; the only existing Terramor is in Bar Harbor, Maine. Meanwhile, Mariposa residents opposed to KOA’s plans have turned to their Catskills counterparts for organizing pointers—and apparently may expect a shipment of no-longer-needed anti-Terramor lawn signs and posters that are being collected in Saugerties and Woodstock on their behalf.

There is one other ironic footnote to all this: as previously noted, KOA already had a campground in the Saugerties/Woodstock area that it could have repurposed as a Terramor with much less hassle, but which was sold to its glamping rival, Autocamp. KOA also had a franchised campground in Mariposa County, just a mile up the road from its proposed new development—but that too was sold, also to Autocamp. The 98-site Yosemite Airstream glampground had its ribbon-cutting in 2019.

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Maybe Terramor should be Terrless?

When KOA decided it wanted to get into the luxury end of the campground business—goosed along, no doubt, by its survey findings that there are a lot of campers out there with too much money and not enough ways to spend it at a conventional RV park—the brand-happy brain trust in Billings, Montana, opted to spin off yet another name plate. Even “KOA Resort” must have seemed too plebian for something as grand as was being envisioned for this new venture. Something more lofty and cultured was needed.

So it was that KOA gave birth to the pseudo-Latinate “Terramor,” a designer mashup connoting “love of the earth.” And thus began a protracted exercise in unintended irony.

The first Terramor glampground was created a couple of years ago in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the grounds of the former Woodlands KOA. Problems ensued. Although highly rated overall in Google reviews, a surprisingly large number of negative reviews identified the same basic problems: too much road noise, a lack of parking at the luxury tents, gravel trails that made it hard to haul luggage from car to tent, tents crowded too close together, inadequate outdoor lighting—problems, in other words, that had to do with location and infrastructure limitations. Problems that might put a serious dent in any return business, given Terramor’s site rates of $350 to $500 a night.

So when KOA went shopping for a second Terramor location, it wanted a blank canvas, a raw piece of property in an upscale neighborhood that it could shape more to its liking. That upscale neighborhood turned out to be near the Catskills towns of Woodstock and Saugerties, an area gaining some renown as the new Hamptons for New York’s monied crowd. The property it settled on is a 77-acre expanse of mature forest, providing relatively more space for site dispersal and sound buffering than it had in Bar Harbor, on which KOA is proposing to build 75 luxury platform tents with ensuite bathrooms and showers, each with its own firepit and parking space. Oh, and there also are plans for a 4,000-square-foot restaurant and event center, an outfitter’s shop, a swimming pool and wellness center, and a small cluster of housing units for 28 employees.

But—can this be?—KOA’s prospective neighbors are not happy. Up to 15 of the 77 acres are wetlands, which KOA proposes to bridge with a berm that will disrupt water flow. Talk of evening concerts has raised concerns about noise pollution, with some residential properties only 100 feet from the glamping sites. Increased traffic, wood smoke from dozens of fire pits, loss of wildlife habitat—no, the neighbors are not happy. They’ve formed a group called Citizens Against Terramor, started a Change.org petition and a GoFundMe account, and raised nearly $30,000 locally to hire a hydrologist, an environmental engineer, a geologist—and, of course, a lawyer.

Protesters at planning board meetings have been hoisting signs that read “Terra LESS” and “Terramor Means ‘Love the Earth’: What About ‘Love Thy Neighbor?'”

Here’s the promised irony: not four miles up the road is the former Saugerties/Woodstock KOA, a typically modest mom-and-pop KOA franchise that puttered along for years to middling reviews. But that all ended two years ago, and earlier this year the property reopened as—wait for it—AutoCamp Catskills. That’s right: one of KOA’s major national competitors in the glamping sector has set up shop at a former KOA that’s a five-minute drive away. And did it without any of the sturm und drang that is battering the Terramor proposal, basically because it was not changing area dynamics.

Indeed, while KOA is still hoping its contested Terramor project can be opened in 2024, AutoCamp already has generated a slug of fawning press coverage for its first season. The 37-acre site houses 65 converted Airstream trailers, 10 tiny-home cabins and 10 “basecamps,” which comprise an Airstream plus a luxury tent; a central wood-beamed clubhouse with vaulted ceilings provides room for games, craft cocktails and morning breakfast and coffee service. (The discerning reader may note that this is a significantly higher development density than is being proposed for Terramor, making the lack of local opposition all the more notable.)

And, of course, everything is quite expensive, with weekend nights in October (two-night minimum required) priced upwards of $500 a night—not to mention firewood selling for $20 a bundle, barbecue kits for $69 and s’more kits for $15. “I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and I’ve never seen prices like this,” a local travel agent told a skeptical New York Post reporter. It’s also, of course, why KOA continues to flog this particular horse, despite all the ill-will it’s generating locally. There’s money to be made, dammit, and getting it the old-fashioned way—you know, by catering to middle-class families with travel trailers and troops of snotty-nosed kids—is just so dreary. And slow.

Glamping. Yeah—that’s the ticket.

Jan. 25 author’s note: This post has been lightly edited to make some corrections, but because this is an evolving story, the reader is encouraged to look at the subsequent post for updates.

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Glampers riot over boxed wine

Sheriff’s deputies and Maine state police responded in force Friday afternoon to the MIA glampground in Bar Harbor, where approximately three dozen deep-pocketed campers went on a destructive rampage after realizing that their afternoon soirees had been serving boxed wines. Tents were toppled, bed linens were strewn around the grounds and the heated swimming pool was tinged a dark red, with empty wine boxes bobbing on the water.

Glampground employees, who had barricaded themselves in the exercise room until law enforcement authorities responded to their frantic cell phone calls, said everything had been normal at the 20-acre facility until the afternoon wine and cheese party. At that point, said glampground manager Horace Quimbly, “one of the guests screamed that she couldn’t endure it any longer–that there was a limit to how much she could take. That seemed to trigger something in the other guests, and the next thing you know they turned into a raving mob.”

A state police representative confirmed the manager’s account, noting that the glampers had become so unruly that caviar had been smeared on guests’ cars in the parking lot. “What kind of animals would damage their own property?” he asked, shaking his head ruefully while pointing at the streaked windshield of a Jaguar F-Type sports car, “this place sucks” scrawled in the dripping roe.

Police ended up handcuffing three of the most belligerent glampers and writing arrest warrants for a dozen more for disturbing the peace and malicious destruction of private property, and by early evening a troubled peace had descended on the premises. But clumps of glampers in animated conversation could be seen around the grounds, furtively glancing over their shoulders as they exchanged complaints about the facility.

“The port and blue stilton were of acceptable quality,” fumed Olivia Sharpton, 46, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., describing the day’s events to a reporter. “But we had been wondering about the pinot noir that they were pairing up with a very nice gruyere –the cheese quite overwhelmed the wine, which was extremely distressing. Quel dommage! But then we discovered, quite by accident, that we’d been served an Oregon boxed varietal that they had decanted into Chateau Latour bottles. What were they thinking? That we wouldn’t know the difference? That’s outrageous!”

“That was absolutely the last straw,” chimed in her husband, Oliver Sharpton, 73. “It’s been one thing after another, ever since we arrived Monday. The hot tub was consistently at just 99 degrees, no matter how much we complained. The thread count of our linens could not have been higher than 400, which means we essentially were sleeping in burlap sacks. And the weather! Fog in the mornings, showers in the afternoons and mosquitoes in the evening–do these people have no regard for their paying guests?”

As others in their small group nodded in agreement, a portly gentlemen in a white linen suit who declined to give his name summed up the overall sentiment. “I’m all for roughing it and getting out into nature,” he said. “But there are limits!”

[Editor’s note: this should go without saying, but this post is a satire–just barely.]

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Nothing beats the great — indoors?

Waddya gonna do when you get that itch to hit the trail, sleep under the stars, cook over an open fire and embrace the great outdoors–but the great outdoors just isn’t all that welcoming? When the horizon is aglow with forest fires and the air is thick with ash, or the skies have opened up with downpours that wash away everything in their path, or the winds are howling with an incessant fury that. . . .

Well, hell. Why not take the great outdoors and simply move it indoors, right?

Welcome to the Basecamp Hotel in South Lake Tahoe, which has elevated (?) the glamping concept to a head-spinning new high with its “Great Indoors” rooms. Large safari tent: check. Camping chairs and picnic table: check. Electric fake log fire in front of a wall-size photorealistic view of the forest: check and check. But also a king-size bed with triple-sheeting, high-speed wireless internet, a walk-in shower–and Harrah’s Lake Tahoe casino mere steps away. How better to combine the best of all possible camping worlds?

Actually, it’s a toss-up whether you choose to view the Basecamp as a dystopian omen of the future for camping or as a witty bit of playfulness, perhaps evidenced by its replacement of the standard-issue Bible in each hotel room with the “Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.” The playful touch is just light enough to have charmed a New York Times reviewer in December, who described it as having “the low-key, homespun feel of a hotel started by your hippest friends.”

Then again, one can wonder if this isn’t the logical evolutionary end-point of the whole glamping phenomenon. First started as an effort to make camping more comfortable, glamping quickly evolved into a quest for more and then still more luxury, from high thread-count linens to cappuccino machines to hot tubs. But despite all that opulence, such nuisances as pesky bugs and wind-driven rain persisted–so why not put the whole package inside four walls and under a roof, where every input can be controlled?

Why not (gasp!) invent a motel?

Two footnotes to the Basecamp Hotel. One, it doesn’t permit pets, so perhaps that’s taking the nature-at-one-remove a step too far. But two, and on the other hand, it also doesn’t have air conditioning, so that’s a bit of camping authenticity for you. Of course, that’s also the biggest source of complaints in the Basecamp’s online reviews, going to prove that you just can’t please everyone.

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Luxury and rustic camping, part 2

If “the intersection between luxury and rustic camping,” detailed in my last post, doesn’t strike you as absurd, consider the following real-world example of just how looney-tunes this can become :

For the past couple of years, a proposal to build a 57-site glamping campground on the Gallatin River in southwest Montana has been bumping along despite vociferous local opposition. The problem? The proposed 16-acre Riverbend Glamping Resort is being planned for a mile-long spit of land that sits between two channels of the river, all of it either in or surrounded by the floodway. The locals think that’s nuts. As one wrote to local officials: “You know the land is going to flood. I know it is going to flood. . . . Anyone with the sense god gave geese knows this is going to flood.”

Then there are the gas, fiber-optic and sewage lines that have to be drilled under the Gallatin, just so glampers can relax in one of a shifting mix of safari tents, teepees, Airstreams or Conestoga “wagons,” the last bearing the same relationship to real prairie schooners as a Norwegian cruise liner has to the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. The locals aren’t wild about that, either, as they contemplate the possibility of line breaks and river contamination.

And if the mix of accommodations sounds a bit indefinite, that’s because the project itself seems to be a work in progress–something else that gets local juices flowing. To date, it’s not clear if a comprehensive proposal has ever been submitted for public review. Permit applications have been filed piecemeal, one for drilling under the river, a different one to build gravel site pads on the site. Fresh details emerge sporadically, such as plans for a second well–drilled right in the floodway–incidentally included in an unrelated filing. Planning restrictions seem irrelevant, including the provision in the Galatin Gateway Community Plan that new development “should be designed to avoid the flood plain and to provide a setback from the river.”

On balance, then, local residents see little upside and a whole lot of down. As adjacent landowner Kris Kruid claimed in her written objections, the proposal threatens to transform “a pristine, natural, blue-ribbon trout stream with a healthy ecosystem of plant and wildlife to a polluted, trash-filled waterway . . . and bank degradation from uneducated trespassers trampling the fragile riparian habitat.” Others bemoaned the impact of such development on the island’s beaver, whitetail deer and bald eagles–the kinds of attractions trumpeted in an ad campaign for the project that asserted, “tourists visit Montana to experience our natural beauty.”

Hogwash, wrote Scott Bosse in an op-ed piece in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. It’s “obvious” that the developer’s “primary motive is to make money off tourists who are willing to shell out a few hundred bucks a night to camp in a high hazard zone on a storied river.”

That was in February, when public comments on the gravel pads application were closed. In early April, the Gallatin County Commission unanimously decided that the project could move forward, with some stipulations. And on June 13 and 14 the Gallatin reached its highest flood stage since the record-setting flood of 1997, cresting at 6.7 feet above normal, nearly 9,000 cubic feet a second of water tearing down both channels of the river and covering much of the island that splits them.

During the public hearings, the glampground’s developer had responded to concerns about flooding by pointing to his planned use of Conestoga wagons. Utilities to the wagons would have quick shut-off couplers, permitting rapid relocation to higher ground. “The whole thing can be done with one staff member in under four hours,” he was quoted by the Chronicle. “We’re talking about less than four minutes for each wagon.”

That seems like an optimistic timetable, but being rousted in the middle of the night so your covered wagon can be hauled out of a river is the very definition of “rustic” and sure to be a hit with the glamping crowd. Now if only there were some way to throw in a buffalo stampede . . . .

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Amping the glamping

Bella Solviva, according to its owners, Brad and Sandy Carlson, supposedly means “beautiful hope.” “Beautiful hype” might have been more like it, as perhaps signalled by its inexplicable mash-up of two different languages.

Bella Solviva was unveiled in 2015, amid fawning media coverage and lavish online pictures, as a 229-acre first-class Michigan glamping resort. Visitors would be able to book a dizzying array of accommodations, from converted yachts and an airliner to luxury tents, travel trailers and treehouses, and would have access to such amenities as a fitness center, massages and catered meals. The “eco-chic” facility would feature organic cotton linens and grey water recycling. As reservations started rolling in, Bella Solviva’s website also offered annual memberships, a rewards program and purchase of gift certificates of up to $5,000.

It was all a scam. The pictures were copied from other sites, ground was never broken and various necessary permits were never obtained–even as Bella Solviva continued soliciting reservations. After two years of growing consumer complaints, the Better Business Bureau issued a consumer alert observing that the company had not “even started initial construction,” and less than a week after that the road-side sign marking the property had disappeared. Bella Solviva as a corporate entity was dissolved a year later, in July of 2018. But it took another three years after that for the Carlsons to be called to account–if you can call it that–as they pleaded no contest this past week to multiple state charges of larceny. Their penalty? Two years’ probation.

This wasn’t the couple’s first exercise in financial recklessness (to be kind), as they had juggled several businesses over the years with no apparent success and had filed for bankruptcy just a couple of years before starting the glamping grift. But the more dismaying aspect of the entire episode is how Bella Solviva lives on in some quarters, a zombie scam that refuses to die even though it’s been defanged.

To whit: this past June 15–which is to say, months after the Carlsons were indicted and years after their scam had gone up in smoke–a website called RVshare published what it described as an updated version of an article it had previously published April 13, 2016. The headline on the 2021 “update?” “Luxurious Glamping in Northern Michigan.” The text went on to rhapsodically describe a facility “that will offer guests a combination of contact with natural beauty and all the creature comforts of modern life,” while also acknowledging that “the resort is still in its preliminary stages.”

Indeed. Proving, yet again, that just because you read something doesn’t mean it’s true.

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