Poking big money is a risky business

I’ve written several times in recent months about deep-pocketed developers whose plans for outsized RV parks have run into unexpected opposition from local residents. For some unfathomable reason, people living quiet lives in rural communities often don’t cotton to the idea of having an extra thousand or more transients rolling into the area, their narrow country roads overrun by rumbling motorhomes and diesel-chugging trucks hauling travel trailers and fifth wheels. They show up at public hearings and form impromptu opposition committees and throw as much sand into the gears as they can, and they most certainly can bog things down.

But big money often claims big friends, and then the fighting can get downright vicious.

One of those fights is shaping up as a court battle in central Kentucky, where an ambitious proposal to build an RV resort of several hundred sites initially was greeted warmly by municipal leaders, who were sold on the idea that the Kentucky Bluegrass Experience Resort would be an economic shot in the arm for the city of Midway. But as the enormity of the project sank in for local residents, raising concerns about increased traffic and the potential for adverse environmental impacts, sentiment quickly shifted–too late, it seemed, because the developers had already obtained a conditional-use permit.

But Midway’s town fathers, undeterred, found an end-run by blocking KBER’s access to the city’s water and sewage services. KBER’s developers cried foul and responded by suing the city’s Board of Adjustments; in May, with the legal proceedings dragging on and Midway’s city council showing no sign of flinching, they filed a motion to add the city itself as a defendant. And there matters stand, with a project once heralded as an economic godsend morphing into a bloated bully determined to have its way regardless of the cost in local goodwill. Even if KBER wins its legal battle, it will have lost the hearts and minds of its neighbors.

Meanwhile, a more nakedly political brawl is shaping up in western North Carolina, where an RV park-building developer in Maggie Valley has enlisted the help of state representative Mark Pless to revoke the town’s zoning authority. Pless’s measure, adopted this past week in the House, will come up for a vote in the Senate this Monday without a hearing, thanks to an arcane maneuver in which Pless found a bill that the Senate had already passed, stripped out its contents–with the consent of its original sponsor–and substituted his own measure in its place.

Prompting Pless’s ambush was a six-month development moratorium that the town of Maggie Valley had adopted after last fall’s election, in which two new aldermen who had campaigned on a “smart growth” platform were swept into office on an avalanche of support. The moratorium was designed to give the town enough time to complete its Unified Development Ordinance, which had been in the works for years. It also threw a monkey wrench into various development proposals from developer Frankie Wood, who has been holding out the lure of resurrecting the town’s fabled amusement park, Ghost Town in the Sky, while pursuing several RV parks, RV planned unit developments and other high-density projects. It didn’t take Wood long to cozy up to Pless.

Indeed, underscoring how personal these conflicts can become, two provisions of Pless’s bill specifically target Maggie Valley–and both expire Jan. 1, 2025, shortly after the terms of the two recently elected aldermen end. Meanwhile, in an ironic juxtaposition, the town’s development moratorium expires this Monday. The now completed development plan is scheduled for a public hearing at 6:30 p.m.–presumably after the North Carolina Senate will have voted on whether to hogtie the town’s ability to control its growth.

Money and ambition are not averse to steamrolling any claims of self-rule and self-determination. And the more money is at stake, the more devastating and widespread the damage.

When NIMBY is a good thing

The NIMBY acronym, meaning “not in my backyard,” is a scornful term–and rightly so–usually hurled against those who oppose a development that they believe would lower their property values. Such projects typically are intended to benefit an underserved population, such as low-income housing or a half-way house, and typically are greeted with false expressions of sympathy and a dozen reasons why–although of course this is a wonderful idea–this just isn’t the right place for it. Please! Not here. Not in my backyard.

It’s therefore tempting to give in to a fleeting sense of schadenfreude when the shoe is on the other foot: when the proposed development would serve those who already have a lot, not those who have little. When a developer rolls into a quiet rural community and announces he’s going to spend a few million dollars to build a vacation playground for RVers, complete with a water park, boat docks, sports courts and game rooms, a restaurant, amphitheater, fitness and yoga center, and whatever else may strike his fancy. When the locals are forced to contemplate the prospect of hundreds of people invading their peaceful corner of the world every week, shakily driving their oversized homes-on-wheels along narrow country lanes.

But it will be good for the community, the developer will bray. Think of all the new business this will bring to the area! The new job opportunities! The boost in local tax revenues!

Somehow the math never quite works out that way, but by the time the locals figure that out it’s too late. As one resort area after another has already demonstrated, from one end of the country to the other, all that new development pushes real estate costs so high that the people filling those new but low-paying jobs can no longer afford to live in the area. The increased spending by all those new visitors is largely captured by the development itself, with only a fraction trickling into the wider community. And in most cases the tax base doesn’t grow enough to pay for the increased demand on police, fire and other services, because transients living in houses-on-wheels don’t pay nearly as much in taxes as people in sticks-and-bricks homes, even as they have almost as many needs.

But developers hoping to cash in on the pandemic-catalyzed RVing boom are looking to build new campgrounds just about everywhere–and because it makes more economic sense to build a bigger campground rather than a smaller one, those proposals tend to be big. Big enough to inject almost as many visitors into a local community as there are local residents–and those local residents, once they figure out what’s in the works, overwhelmingly don’t like it one bit. From a proposed RV park of 300+ sites at the Mashantucket-Pequot casino in Connecticut, to a similarly sized RV park proposed for Lake Anna in Virginia, to the mega-park branded as the Kentucky Bluegrass Experience Resort, grassroots opponents have convinced their local representatives to block or severely modify such unwanted intrusions into their communities.

The developers, no surprise, are fighting back on several fronts–and even are resorting to disdainful accusations of NIMBYism against their opponents. That’s flipping the term on its head, of course, which is amusing and unsustainable. Less amusing, on the other hand, is a North Carolina state politician’s promise to enact legislation that would allow the state to overrule local land-use decisions–not on behalf of low income housing or half-way houses, but to repel attempts to control the development of still more RV parks in an area that is already bursting with them.

In circumstances like these, NIMBY may be the most appropriate response.

Next post: the threat to Maggie Valley

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