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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Growing identity crisis for RV parks

Despite the entrance sign at right, the R.V. Park of San Rafael is home to an eclectic mix of travel trailers, mobile homes and a park model, all visible from the entrance.

RVtravel has an interesting story today, by Randall Brink, which misses the forest for the trees but which nonetheless sounds yet another warning about a dystopian outlook for RV full-timers.

The piece, headlined “RV park tenants evicted after court ruling,” relates how residents of the R.V. Park of San Rafael, California, will lose their homes after the park’s owners ran afoul of the city’s rent stabilization ordinance—an ordinance expressly designed for mobilehome parks. In a nutshell, the property owner’s management firm, Harmony Communities, tried to raise rents by more than the ordinance permits, and on being sued by the city, argued that an RV park should not be subject to a mobilehome ordinance. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, pointing out that the ordinance has been on the books since 1991—15 years prior to the current owner buying the property—and that the matter had already been adjudicated in state court.

Harmony’s response? Issue eviction notices earlier this month to 40 of the RV park’s 45 residents, giving them until Oct. 31 to vacate the premises, presumably to prepare the land for sale. “The city wants a private property owner to singlehandedly subsidize affordable housing in San Rafael but the park has no cash and is losing money every month,” Harmony explained in a press release. “Since the city has refused to honor its own ordinance, the only choice is to shut down the park. We anticipate all residents moving out by October and look forward to redeveloping the property towards a higher and better use.”

Note that even after losing its court case, Harmony is still insisting that the city’s ordinance should not be applicable to an RV park—but is that an accurate description of the R.V. Park of San Rafael? As the photo above illustrates, the one shared aspect of the various dwellings on this property is that they all have wheels. Calling this conglomeration an RV park is no more accurate than calling it a mobile home park or trailer court—indeed, it could as easily, and accurately, be called the Mobilehome Park of San Rafael. Moreover, that blurring of distinctions is not helped in the least by California’s statutes, which define a mobilehome park as a property “that has at least two mobilehomes, manufactured homes, recreational vehicles, and/or lots that are held out for rent or lease.” [Emphasis added.]

Why does it matter? For one thing, such state laws and court rulings continue to mock efforts by the RV industry to draw a bright line between its products, which it contends are not intended for full-time residency, and actual dwellings that must be built to national housing standards. Successfully making that distinction helps the industry avoid such pesky regulations as requiring their electricians to be licensed, to cite a particularly egregious example, and it enables enormous cost-savings on construction materials and quality. If national standards for manufactured housing—the more contemporary label for mobile homes—were applied uniformly to mobilehome parks, RVs would never be admitted.

But that’s the forest that gets obscured by individual trees like the R.V. Park of San Rafael, where press coverage tends to focus on the need for affordable housing and not so much on what standards that housing should meet. What’s obscured is that RVs, park models, tiny homes and house trailers increasingly have become an undifferentiated mass of last-resort shelter, jostling each other for a place to chock their wheels in a mad campground game of musical sites—single-wides moving into RV parks, travel trailers finding room in trailer courts, park models and tiny homes springing into any chinks that can be found.

All these disparate forms of housing are not created equal, so why do we pretend that they are—except, of course, when it suits an outfit like Harmony Communities (really? Harmony?) to draw a belated, self-serving distinction? Are standards for manufactured homes too stringent, and therefore should be relaxed, if only to make house trailers more affordable? Or are those standards the bare minimum for ensuring safe and durable shelter for people with wheeled homes, even if those homes are called park models, fifth-wheels or travel trailers—in which case, what will it take to extend those standards?

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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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