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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