No room for RVs in gentrifying parks

As RV parks and campgrounds become increasingly folded into the cultural mainstream, it’s perhaps inevitable that they start resembling the larger society, warts and all. And so it is that campgrounds, once a refuge from the glitz and ostentation that characterize the contemporary world, have become as vulnerable to gentrification as any downtown warehouse district.

Remember Woodlands KOA? Probably not. A well-reviewed and moderately priced campground in Bar Harbor, Maine, it was closed three years ago with promises that it was going to be renovated and improved. RVers who had camped there in the past were thrilled. But when the campground reopened in 2021 it had been rebranded as Terramor Outdoor Resort, all the RV sites were gone and all “camping” was now restricted to renting one of four different styles of luxury tents–at an average price of $450 a night.

No? Then perhaps you’re familiar with French Broad River Campground RV Park in North Carolina, described in an online review as “a little hidden rustic gem” with all of its RV sites right on the river and a nightly rate averaging $45. That little gem went for $1.8 million earlier this year, as its owners of the past 27 years decided they were ready to do a little RVing themselves. “After some renovations, the new owners will reopen,” they assured their campers in a final Facebook post.

Yes, they will–but not any time real soon, as there’s still a lot of work to be done. That’s because the new buyer is AutoCamp, a fitfully growing national chain of glampgrounds that rents Airstream trailers and luxury tents but does not maintain spaces for RVs or tents, which would bring down the upscale vibe it’s seeking. This is, after all, an operation that describes itself as “an outdoor boutique hotel experience.” Which, in English, means nightly stays north of $300.

Or consider Prospect Lake Park in the Berkshires, a decades-old campground on the shores of a 56-acre lake that hosted generations of campers for the kind of idyllic summer vacations that would have caught Norman Rockwell’s eye. Its sites started at $39 a night, but if you needed 50 amps you were out of luck and whether you had a good time depended on how well you dealt with a gruff management style. If that rubbed you the wrong way, good news: the campground is now closed for at least another year, purchased last winter by a local developer, Ian Rasch, for $2.1 million.

As reported last week by Bill Shein of the Berkshire Edge, longtime summer residents who had put down deposits for this past season got refunds and were told that the new owner was planning on “significant improvements to the facilities.” Which is true as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough: the “improvements” entail replacing 125 RV sites with 40 park model RVs, reportedly being designed by a Brooklyn-based firm widely known for its “innovative prefabricated modular structures.” The improvements will not leave room for RVers or tenters.

Rasch’s intentions are also signaled by his working with LAND, an Austin, Texas-based design firm, to create a new “brand identity” for what had been a somewhat scruffy facility. LAND’s most recent project in the area was the 2018 launch of Tourists, a motel-turned-boutique hotel in nearby North Adams, where rooms rent for $300 to $700 a night. Chi-chi ‘R’ Us.

Why go to all the trouble of reworking an existing RV park rather than starting with a clean slate? Wouldn’t the latter be much easier and less messy?

Perhaps–but going the virgin-birth route opens up a developer to the uncertainties that come with seeking conditional use permits or other zoning approval, which means public hearings and potential public opposition. That’s what Terramore is discovering with its second venture, a 77-acre property it wants to develop from the ground up in Saugerties, New York. Despite its best efforts at community diplomacy earlier this summer, Terramor has been hit by local opponents who seem unimpressed with its pretensions to “outdoor opulence done right” but are worrying about water use, traffic and noise. Two weeks ago the newly formed Citizens Against Terramor told the local newspaper, “We’re afraid we’re headed for World War III.”

The alternative to that nightmare, however, can mean dancing right up to the line defining permitted use. Although Rasch’s redevelopment of Prospect Lake Park will amount to construction of a lakeside cabin community, by using RV park models instead of real cabins–or even tiny homes–he can maintain the fiction that the property will remain what it’s always been: a “campground.”

Just don’t try to camp there.

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The bogus nature of park models

A legal squabble in Currituck County, North Carolina, is exposing one of the camping industry’s biggest con jobs: the persistent claim that “park models” are just regular RVs.

A park model, as RVers who camp at commercial campgrounds probably know, is basically a cabin built on a single trailer chassis. Federal rules restrict them to less than 400 square feet, but they can be as much as 14′ wide, which neutral observers might conclude stretches the definition of “vehicle.” Indeed, like their larger mobile home or house trailer counterparts, park models usually require a special permit to be moved and usually need specialized towing equipment. Like house trailers, they usually don’t have holding tanks and so need direct water and sewer hookups for their plumbing. And like house trailers, once they’ve been set up they’re usually there to stay, wheels and axles removed and the undercarriages surrounded by skirting.

Park models, in other words, might appear to have a lot more in common with the manufactured housing found in trailer courts than with RVs. From a regulatory perspective, in fact, the only critical difference is the square-foot limitation: more than 400 square feet and the wheeled house is defined as a dwelling, subject to Housing and Urban Development regulations. Less than 400 square feet and the wheeled house is defined as “a trailer-type RV that is designed to provide temporary accommodations for recreation, camping or seasonal use,” removing it from under HUD’s regulatory umbrella and putting it under the arguably less stringent manufacturing standards of something called ANSI A-119.5.

That standard dates back to 1982, when the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, the trade group representing RV manufacturers, sought to draw a bright line between “vehicles” and “dwellings” to forestall greater regulatory oversight of the RVs it was building. Over time, however, RVIA has steadily enlarged the scope of ANSI permissibility. In 1997, for example, it persuaded HUD to exempt “small lofts” from the square-foot calculation–and in the years since, the small lofts have grown bigger and taller, and now range up to five feet high. More recently, the industry also won the right to exempt porches built on the chassis from the same square footage limitation, opening the door for even bigger chassis footprints.

Still, even as park models grow more and more indistinguishable from mobile homes, the industry superficially maintains the fiction that park models are intended only for part-time recreational use. “Superficially” because even though that’s the official line, the real-world reality is that park models are touted as low-cost housing “perfect for retired seniors and couples just starting life,” according to one sales brochure, which optimistically adds that they’re “built to last 30-50 years or more with minimal maintenance.”

Or consider the representations of an outfit called Platinum Cottages, which claims that “while they are referred to as RVs and mobile homes, park model homes are built more robustly than their competitors and have more creature comforts that closely resemble traditional homes. They can be used for a variety of different things, from temporary living to permanent living quarters.” Indeed–and there are people all around the country doing just that, living year-round in park models parked in campgrounds and in mobile home parks and in some cases on private land.

It’s also why Currituck County, where Blue Water Development bought an existing campground four years ago, is having a problem. Having rebranded the property as the KOA Outer Banks West campground and then deciding it wasn’t entirely happy with its acquisition (don’t these people do any prior due diligence?), Blue Water soon went to court over the county’s land use restrictions–already in place several years when it bought the property–so it could add 80 RV sites, a swimming pool and other facilities. It lost that battle last summer, when the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that no, the county rules would stand.

Undaunted, Blue Water is back in court again, this time over new campground rules that the county adopted this past February–rules, ironically, that to some extent ease the earlier restrictions. Raising Blue Water’s ire, however, is a provision that would limit RVs to vehicles no more than 8.5-feet wide “in the transport mode.” Which is to say, no park models, which the county contends look more like manufactured homes than RVs.

Blue Water, which has 21 park models 10 to 14 feet wide at the KOA, is aghast. “The park model RVs clearly are not manufactured homes,” the lawsuit asserts, further contending that it “creates an unfair competitive advantage” for campgrounds in nearby counties that don’t have the same restrictions. Indeed, says Blue Water, the new law could put it out of business altogether, and just as the season is picking up. Currituck County’s new rules are nothing less than an existential threat that means campgrounds will “cease to exist.”

Hyperbolic? No doubt, but it will be interesting to see how Blue Water advances its claim that park model RVs “clearly” are not manufactured homes. Yes, it can be counted on to stress the difference between ANSI and HUD certification, and that might be enough to make the legal point. But the reality is that this is an increasingly arbitrary and meaningless distinction for an ANSI standard that no longer passes the smell test–if it ever did. If Carrituck County doesn’t make its case with a legal argument, it should prevail on the facts: park models do in fact look more like a manufactured home than an RV.

Time to get real.

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