What’s the difference between a summer camp and an RV campground?
None at all, according to Northgate Resort Ventures, which wants to transform a 170-acre summer sleep-away camp in the Berkshires into a 317-site RV resort. That’s why the Michigan-based operator of 19 other resorts around the country, most of which are Jellystone franchises, told the western Massachusetts town of Hinsdale that it didn’t need a special permit – that its proposal simply “continues the land’s use for camping.”
But as Northgate quickly learned, local residents don’t see it that way. Located in western Massachusetts, scarcely a mile from the Appalachian Trail, Camp Emerson has been owned and operated by the same family for more than 50 years. For six weeks each summer, from late June through early August, it has been home to approximately 250 campers, ages 7 to 15, as well as 100 or so camp counselors overseeing their participation in the kinds of modest activities most people associate with “summer camp”: outdoor games, archery, performing arts, watersports, rocketry, woodworking.
Northgate’s proposal, on the other hand, calls for adding roads where none now exist, demolishing some of the two dozen wooden cabins that house campers and replacing them with 100 park models, adding a 35,000-square-foot water park, general store, cafeteria and other amenities, and easily quintupling the amount of water it needs to draw down annually in a water basin the state has designated an “area of critical environmental concern.” In doing so, it would host as many as 1,200 “campers” at a time over a six-month season, just outside a town of 2,000 residents that has no gas station, one restaurant and two variety/package stores.
It is, say many of those residents, a bit much.
Meanwhile, the way Northgate has approached the entire project – most locals didn’t even know about it until an article appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 6, months after discussions had started – has resurrected the suspicion of transients that increasingly shadows these kinds of outsized proposals. The first public meeting at which Northgate trotted out its plans, held July 28, had the air of a fait accompli, according to one local resident, who noted that the presenters simply “discussed their work undertaken thus far and how they planned to proceed.” That didn’t go over well with some.
The town’s infrastructure is inadequate for “transient visitors who have no financial, moral or ethical ties to the community,” local residents Craig and Dorothy Walton complained in a letter to planning officials after the meeting. Added town resident Marie Cole, similarly worried about an “invasion” of visitors overtaxing the environment and municipal services: “The reality is, there’s no way to know who breezes into town and for what purpose. There is no accountability to the people who have worked hard to live here and live by the rules.”
The “rules” in this case mean the property’s R-5 zoning, reserved for agricultural and low-density residential use. The zoning restrictions allow special permits to be issued for five exceptions, including mobile home parks and commercial summer camps, but there is no exception for RV parks – deliberately so, say town residents – prompting Northgate’s tortured interpretation of what it means to be a summer camp.
Zoning issues aside, much of the mounting local opposition is based on the proposed campground’s recreational and environmental impact. Northgate advertises its campgrounds as having “a family atmosphere and incorporating water features in natural settings,” but in this case the “water feature” is a small, 70-acre manmade lake on which only two motorized boats are allowed to operate at any one time. With Northgate saying it intends to operate two motorboats for six hours a day, local residents fret that they’ll be crowded out – and more so if RV campers, ignorant of the rules but encouraged by Northgate’s advertising, bring their own watercraft. Meanwhile, the watershed is so fragile that the state Department of Environmental Protection recommended in 2004 that Hinsdale “make every effort” to purchase Camp Emerson through state and federally funded conservation programs to protect the town’s water supply.
That didn’t happen, and now those who support Northgate’s plans point out that the family owners of Camp Emerson are determined to sell, ready to call it quits after more than half a century – and who can blame them? But what’s the alternative? Sell to a developer who will come in and build 155 homes, as one of the camp’s employees conjectured, and “then you would never have water”? Or sell to someone who would build low-income housing, she added, which would “make your property values tank”?
Others, of a less apocalyptic bent, nevertheless have expressed concern about getting entangled in expensive legal proceedings. After the town elders in Milton, New Hampshire, rejected a Northgate application to expand a 223-site RV park by 173 sites because of traffic concerns, the company filed a lawsuit. When it lost, it appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, where it also lost. Despite those setbacks, Northgate’s unrelenting efforts have given it a litigious reputation in Hinsdale, where similar concerns about narrow roads and lack of sidewalks have not been relieved by the company’s reliance on the same traffic consultants that it used in Milton.
Hinton’s legal and environmental morass has only gotten deeper over the past several months, so that a decision on Northgate’s proposal by the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which had been scheduled for Dec. 14, has been pushed off to Jan. 11. But whichever way it goes, two things are already predictable: There will be additional disputes over this particular proposal. And the issues surrounding this dispute will be replicated elsewhere many times over, as existing campgrounds – and summer camps – are swallowed up by much larger operators, who in turn will be looking for economies of scale that won’t fit comfortably within existing communities.
Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. The fascinating book, recently published, is available at many large bookstores and at Amazon.com.