Maryland ‘Campers’ Told to Go
In a court battle that has simmered for more than five years, a Cecil County judge ruled in June that Indian Acres near Cecilton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is a campground – not a subdivision. Deed restrictions say owners may live on lots, called “funsteads,” up to 150 days a year and no more than 100 consecutive days, according to the Wilmington, Del., News Journal.
The estimated 350 people who live there permanently could be evicted at the county’s whim.
“At this point, we have two options,” said Cliff Houston, Cecil County zoning administrator. “One is to set a date and tell them they have to be out by that date. The other option is to try to phase it in. Give them a little more time to do it.”
The county likely won’t act until an appeal is resolved, Houston said. Full-time residents met Sunday to raise money to keep the Indian Acres case alive.
Some simply believe restrictions violate their property rights. Unlike most campgrounds, where lots are leased, Indian Acres residents buy their lots, most of which are about 2,000 square feet.
“How can they tell you you’re in a campground when you own your own property?” said Duane Hopkins, 65, who has a primary residence in New Jersey. His Indian Acres home, also built around a trailer, has a screened-in porch and skylights and is worth about $100,000, he said.
Others say they have no place else to go.
“It’s part of a larger story,” said Tony DiGiaccomo, Cecil County’s principal planner. “Affordable housing is becoming an issue here. A lot of the native Cecil Countians are having trouble finding a place to live.”
With lots selling for an average of about $4,500, Indian Acres has long offered prime real estate at an affordable price for seasonal visitors.
Zoning ordinances dating back to the 1970s – when the campground opened – stipulated that residents shouldn’t live there all year, permitting “temporary and not year-round occupancy … (in) cabins, tents recreational vehicles and campers up to 45 feet in length.”
Over the last three decades, though, more and more people have settled there for good.
Neither the park’s management nor county government has enforced the rules. County officials acknowledged they had dropped the ball.
“For years, the county permitted what was going on,” said Houston, the zoning administrator. Literally.
The county issued building permits for a variety of projects at Indian Acres – some of them elaborate. Residences at the 300-acre campground range from rundown, stand-alone trailers to two-story manufactured homes with garages and gazebos. The zoning department has one enforcement officer and only investigates complaints, Houston said.
The situation came to a head in 2002, when officials learned that public school buses were picking up 25 to 30 children outside Indian Acres. Funstead owners pay property taxes, but at a lower rate than homeowners because the land is categorized as “recreational.”
“Issuing a permit doesn’t necessarily mean the county is condoning year-round residency,” said Commissioner Rebecca Demmler. “You have to get a permit to build, regardless of what other restrictions are.”
The county issued eviction notices in May 2002, setting off a legal battle that prompted the most recent judge’s decision. Although at least 58 full-time Indian Acres residents joined in a class-action lawsuit to fight for their year-round property rights, others opted out – with many seasonal residents saying they want permanent residency to stop.
One seasonal camper said that allowing permanent residents breeds illegal activity at the campground, such as drug use and break-ins. She didn’t want her name published, for fear of reprisals.
Cecil Circuit Court Judge John Frederick Price agreed. In his June 27 opinion, he wrote that permanent residents have been “openly and in most cases knowingly in violation of the Indian Acres Declaration of Restrictions.” In similar cases in Pennsylvania, Ohio and California, residents have been evicted from their homes.
Still, housing and homeless officials in Cecil County worry about where Indian Acres residents will go.