Town Struggles with Year-Round Camping
An ordinance banning year-round camping at campgrounds in Coventry, R.I., drew enough people to fill the town council chambers at a recent council meeting.
As discussion extended into public comment, former Town Council President Justin Pomfret rose to the podium to apologize to Colwell Campground and his mother, owner of Hickory Ridge, saying that he knew the ordinance was aimed directly at hurting him, according to the Kent County Daily Times.
As the last item on a slim council agenda, the ordinance would amend an ordinance approved in January 2008 that had allowed the four campgrounds in town to host year-round guests. At the time, Pomfret recused himself from discussion, but the matter was still controversial because it benefited his family.
Since year-round camping was allowed in 2008 it has been a matter of concern, Town Council President Raymond Spear told the public. Previously, campgrounds could only be inhabited from April 15 through Oct. 31.
Hoping to produce a discussion about the pros and cons of this change, the ordinance wasn’t put on the agenda specifically for passage, Spear said, but rather to encourage review of the new regulation.
One of his concerns, Spear said, is that a campground is not designed for permanent residence. After looking in the dictionary, he found that campgrounds are defined as a temporary lodging. Another concern is that when a campground is treated like a permanent residence, the inhabitants do not pay property taxes or even mobile home taxes and yet they have access to town services.
The ordinance that Town Solicitor Patrick Rogers prepared would revert the regulations back to how they were prior to January 2008, Town Manager Thomas Hoover said. Since the passage of the ordinance, only two campgrounds have taken advantage of the option to let 20% of their guests stay year-round.
Colwell and Hickory Ridge have both had less than 10 people staying the winter this year, Hoover indicated.
No one would lose their home this winter if the ordinance was amended, he added. “This is not about moving people or making them vacate this winter. But by Oct. 31 next year they would have to be out.”
Discussing the matter was a “waste of time,” Councilman Frank Hyde said as council discussion opened on the ordinance. “I think this is a foolish thing to consider; I think this is a waste of the council’s time,” he said. There was scattered applause in the room.
“There are better things to do than go after a few people who are taking advantage of this,” Hyde continued. “Maybe they lost their home and need a place to stay. Show some compassion. Think about what you’re doing.”
When the original ordinance was passed in 2008, it was not without controversy, the Daily Times previously reported. The Jan. 28, 2008, council meeting was the second time that the council had to vote to pass the ordinance after the attorney general’s office ruled that they had improperly posted it the previous time.
At the second vote on the matter, the previous town council did not allow any public comment, under advisement of then Town Solicitor Patrick Sullivan. Members of the public who tried to comment were threatened with removal from the town council chambers. This was after a two-hour executive session that kept the public waiting long after the posted meeting time.
Councilman Glenford Shibley didn’t see any harm in reviewing the matter, he said. “I’m not for or against [year-round camping],” he said. “I want to review it and find out why it was changed.”
“Why was the ordinance changed?” asked Council Vice President Laura Flanagan.
“One argument still reverberates,” Hyde said recalling the vote in his previous term on the council. “They pay taxes year-round — not for just eight months — and there are no children in the schools.”
The campgrounds are paying taxes, Spear clarified, but not those who reside there. “Yet [the campers] are eligible for town services.”
Some of them, predominantly at Colwell, do pay taxes on tangible personal property which is in the range of $400 to $500 annually, Hoover said. There is a state exemption for vehicle taxes if the value is under $6,000, he added, so the town only brings in a couple vehicle taxes at $7.50 and $4.69 in excess of that exemption, he said.
There are currently no children staying in the campgrounds, Hoover said.
At the same time that the ordinance was adopted, he remembers that there was an issue about one campground keeping people there year-round, Spear said.
“Why in a time when businesses aren’t doing well are we going to undermine them?” Hyde asked. “I see something deeper here — I don’t know what it is.”
When the council opened the floor for public comment, Steven Colwell, who runs Colwell Campground with his sisters, came to the podium.
His mother foresaw the concerns about children in campgrounds, Colwell said, and when she established the campground in 1954, she would not allow anyone to bring children to her campsites. That policy is still in place.
“We have 102 sites and only seven annual sites,” he continued. “We take care of our trash, do all our snow plowing, we don’t let anyone who has kids stay there.”
The five year-round campers now are all there because of hardship, Colwell said. “I could run down their stories right here, but I don’t think that’s right.”
Ann Pomfret, owner of Hickory Ridge, was the next to speak. When she moved to Coventry to take over Hickory Ridge in 1979, year-round camping was allowed, Ann told the council.
“In 30 years no one ever approached us and told us not to do it. The first time we had a license was in 2000 and before that we always had a state license.”
According to his memory, 2000 was the first time the town started regulating its campgrounds, Hyde said.
“All our [campers] are hardworking, good citizens,” Pomfret continued. “We use very little of your services and do our own plowing and trash.”
Gary Pomfret, Ann’s son, told the council he was willing to bet that year-round camping was allowed in all the other 49 states. “Things do change,” he said. “We would like to be like all the other businesses in town that get to be opened year round. Is my mom going to have to come here every time the council changes?”
Coming to a meeting to answer a few questions is hardly horrible, Flanagan responded. In a season when the budget is going to be tight for another year “we’re trying to find out if this permanent residence is creating a financial burden on the town,” she said.
Since Hickory Ridge has been in Coventry for more than 30 years, Hyde suggested grandfathering them in if the council were to pass the ordinance.
Flanagan disagreed. “I don’t think after the legal council drafts an ordinance we’re going to just grandfather people in.”
But both Hyde and Flanagan agreed that the ordinance should be tabled until the manager and solicitor could look into the issues that were raised by discussion. Spear wanted to hear more from the public, but the motion to table the amendment was already on the floor. Flanagan made the motion and Hyde seconded it. The council tabled the motion with a vote of 4-1, Spear dissenting.
Because there were more residents who wanted to speak, Spear made an exception and allowed discussion of the ordinance in public comment.
Democratic Town Committee Chair Richard Kalunian suggested that the council should have held a work session on the topic, rather than introduced an ordinance.
“We don’t need work sessions because of how this council runs their meetings,” Flanagan responded. “I know that Mrs. Pomfret is the mother of the former council president. I know that; but I am listening to her because I don’t care about who is related to who or the town politics. I want to get to the bottom of this.”
Allowing year-round residency at campgrounds gives affordable temporary housing to people who need it, increases tourism to Rhode Island and stimulates the local economy, Alicia Pomfret added in public comment.
Representative Scott Guthrie told the council that tabling the ordinance was the right thing to do and that they should look into the matter in more detail before bringing it back up.
Before the meeting closed, Justin Pomfret took the floor to make his own comments on the matter.
“I had the pleasure of serving as a town council member in the past,” he said. “It was pleasant at times and disgustingly gross at others — we’ve got Republicans and Democrats. I apologize to anyone who has to be involved in this.”
Turning to the assembly, he continued, “I would like to apologize to Mr. Colwell and I would like to apologize to my mom. They have been through this too many times and I know that it is because of me. Mr. Spear, I would like to shake your hand; thank you very much for beating me.”
If the council had introduced the ordinance in order to “jam it to you,” they could have, Flanagan told Pomfret. “We had the votes to do so. But we didn’t do that. We chose to table the motion because we listened to you.”
He will be looking into the matter further, with the assistance of the solicitor, Hoover said on Tuesday afternoon.