By Andy Zipser
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 feet 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.
More in common with trailer parks?
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 (RVIA), 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.
As park models look more like mobile homes…
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.
Limiting the widths of park models
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 Currituck 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.
Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. From the book: “While campers are out to experience fresh air, bucolic surroundings and the easy-going camaraderie of fellow travelers, the people who create that environment are often over-worked, under-paid and stressed out. And to make matters worse, their efforts are too readily dismissed as just ‘renting dirt.'” The fascinating book is available at some bookstores and at Amazon.com.
I’ve been weekend and vacation RVing for 2 1/2 years with a 32’ Class C. I’ve learned about different private campgrounds and the market segments they serve. I understand there’s going to be many full time residents and space lessors or owners in RV parks. So I use RV parks mostly when I’m going on longer distance vacations or to visit National Parks. On weekends I prefer State Parks because they meet my expectations for that purpose: short stay camping (they don’t look like a trailer park), more space, better views, etc.
The town I live in in NV is going through something similar. A landowner (over an acre) purchased a park model to put on his property for his 86-year-old mother to live out her days in. The town has many of them on property around and there are lots of casitas also. The PM is in place with the axles and tongue on it. The owner offered to remove the temporary skirting, lower it, hook it up to his truck and drive it around the block so the county code inspector could see it was not permanent. My advice was to make the county commissioners, who have PMs and casitas, remove theirs and he would remove his.
An RV website should be backing park models not bashing them. Once you start letting counties regulate more and more transient RVers will equally pay the price as anyone with a park model. Park models look better than a stick and tin destination trailer anyday. Yikes. Bad reporting in the Industry.
I don’t really get this rant. It sounds more like the rant of an RV owner that couldn’t find room at the inn while traveling, and wants to blame the park models.
Park models serve a transportable niche between on the road rvs and mobile homes. If a town doesn’t want full year living use, they should regulate against it and not allow any expansion of the living space (which is kind of a no-brainer and already regulated by building codes). It’s actually hard to find areas that allow park models or tiny homes on wheels to be put on private land (one of the hard truths not really addressed in the “tiny home” press).
We have a park model designated log cabin on a rural piece of property, in a town that doesn’t regulate against such things. It’s used seasonally and is a great retreat for us. Wheels and trailer hitch are on it as it is transportable, and may be moved some day. Great way to leave no trace on our land once we leave ourselves. There are also tax advantages.
I live in a 1001’ sq single wide in a Rv/single wide home park, and if it’s a manufactured home with axles and hitch removed upon initial set up, then it becomes the same as our single wide full size homes, and will probably never move again so in a sense they are permanently set in place- the cost to unhook move and hook up again is unrealistic, one might even say that it would be more cost effective to just get another one. Rvs don’t have these issues as they are made to disconnect and move freely and in a very DIY kind of way. That right there should be a solid line between the 2. And park model tiny homes usually don’t have the slide outs that the big Rvs do and they can increase their square footage.
So I don’t think size should matter, movability should
The only reason this issue has come to the forefront for discussion is because so many RV’s are being built and sold so, suddenly, there is a shortage of RV camping spaces. The new RVer’s are angry that park models are taking their spaces. Folks, this is competition, demand and supply, and capitalism. If you don’t like it you know the options: move to a different country or convert this country so you can have your own way. My advice is to get over it. They were here first. Buy a lot. Make reservations. Camp where the demand for camp sites is lower. The rules of the game are set. Even if you change the rules, the new rules will not apply to existing structures.
We experienced a situation 4 years ago in St.Augustine, Fl. We made a reservation for a month in a campground to visit with the grandson and family on their vacation. Upon arrival we found there was only 7 RV sites as the rest of the park was park models to double wide mobile homes. In general conversation with some of the residents we found that during the recession of ‘08-‘09 RV traffic dwindled down to practically 0 so the park started taking in mobile homes to stay alive. Now they have a steady income but still have 7 spaces for people like us, I can’t blame them for their actions, but I wonder if now they are having second thoughts because of the campground overcrowding situation. Probably not because their maintenance costs are stable and their monthly income is stable. I’ll take stability any day.
Glad to see this issue being discussed. I’m guessing most “park models” really don’t meet the definition of “travel trailers”. RV parks/campgrounds need to be redefined as well, as many are becoming permanent/semi-permanent or seasonal housing areas. There should be room for all, but in separate facilities, clearly defined and regulated. I disagree that this regulation is a bad thing. Spelling out these differences, and enforcing them, reduces confusion and should allow for better facilities for all. Just having separate areas for tent camping and RV parking makes sense, too, as most tent campers want more of a “camping” experience than RVs provide.
This is a typical case of government born local and federal sticking their authoritarion noise nose into every aspect of private like. In reality who cares and what difference does it even make!
You are definitely correct! It’s so apparent our government wants to control every aspect of our lives
Adults no longer can think for themselves.
Non-profits/NGO need to own RV parks with a strict mission of low cost rents. This would reduce homelessness and alleviate despair.
I’m an appraiser with over 45 years experience. If the wheels and tow hitch are removed with skirting and ground water and water hook ups connected, then it’s not an RV, it’s a manufactured home. PERIOD!
Doesn’t take long to bolt in back together , pretty easy actually.
You’re absolutely 10000 percent wrong. That is not federal law, nor is it a correct assertion. Removing a hitch or skirting anything does not make it a permanent structure nor remove it from the RV class.
How does a person go about getting A park model appraised and can the landlord actually ask double the price of what it is advertised on the Internet and after I put in a proposal of what they wanted for a down payment and the months that they wanted it paid off by. Can you help me at all? I’m in the state of Arizona if that helps at all. I just wanna know if I have a leg to stand on if I have any rights?
We have rented park models in a snowbird RV resort in AZ that is probably 2/3 park models and 1/3 RV spaces. Not only have the tongues and wheels been removed, but at least half the park models have an added “Arizona room”. This is a stick-built addition (with standard residential doors, windows, lights, electric outlets, etc., and NO 12v power, batteries, propane, or holding tanks) which is NEVER going to be moved anywhere. And most of these are filled with year-round owner-occupants. So, the 400 sq. ft. limitation is a farce and calling these “RVs” cannot be defended even by RVIA!
I’m a desert rat, live in a park model at a great resort, it’s a wonderful place to live if your alone or older, very safe and enjoyable, as for you travelers to our state, they have spots designated for you big rv, some are humongous! But you have to make reservations, because everyone wants to come to Arizona, but unlike us desert dwellers, you can’t take the heat, you have to leave, so just quit complaining, really?
I laugh when I see these shows about building “tiny homes”. I think they are clueless. Park models already have the “tiny home” demand completely covered. Turn key. Done.
And properly engineered and manufactured.
Me? I’d rather have a real, roadworthy RV that I can roll on a moment’s notice when the Zombie Apocalypse comes…!
Gotta have both
I feel that unless it can be made 8.5′ or less wide in the travel mode, it should be considered a mobile home. If it requires a permit to roll on the road, its a mobile home….NOT an RV. Its common sense. I’ve owned a mobile home once and learned all about them. Lots of very specific rules and regulations apply to them, as opposed to site-built or RVs.
I guess the question is: what’s the definition of an RV Resort/ Campground? RV stands for recreational vehicle, and vehicles have wheels in order to move. Park models had the wheels removed and are stationary so they are not vehicles anymore. So, park models are not camping, they are more like individual hotel rooms. But I’m not a lawyer, We prefer the RV wheels so we can change our scenery whenever we want. My 2 cents worth.
Stayed in a campground in Florida that had been taken over by Park Models. Nice enough, but not a great experience.
Bluewater contends that “Currituck County’s new rules are nothing less than an existential threat that means campgrounds will “cease to exist.”
No. It means that RVers can come and RV, campers can camp, and homesteaders can’t grab the attraction of an Outer Banks Campground on a permanent basis.
Currituck County should go even farther and place a time limit on campground stays of two weeks so we can move back to the original meaning of “Recreation. “
I agree with you Greg, I hate calling ahead to a so called campground then find out it’s 70 percent permanent. Then you get stuck in between 2 permanents.
I So agree. And I don’t have problem with full-time RVers staying longer, but maybe limit it to 3 months. But, there Should be a limit to the stay, or just becomes another mobile home park.