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Massachusetts Campgrounds: Too Many Hurdles

June 1, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Barbara and Ralph Holton announced this winter that they would close their Middleborough, Mass., campground by year’s end.

Owners of the Tispaquin Family Campground since 1984, they have been in a protracted legal battle with local officials over septic and health regulations — the Holtons seeking to expand their operation, the town and state telling them instead to reduce the number of their campsites, according to the Boston Globe.

In May, the Holtons declared their intention to remain open and apply for a new operating permit. With the summer camping season approaching and statewide bookings running 16% ahead of last year, according to the Massachusetts Association of Campgrounds Owners (MACO), loyal customers attended a recent town hearing in support of the Holtons. A grateful Barbara Holton nevertheless admits that managing a campground often seems more trouble than it’s worth.

“For 20 of the 26 years we’ve been in business, I keep asking myself: Can I do this another year?’’ she says. “It’s taken a toll.’’

The Holtons are not alone in questioning whether operating a family-oriented campground — a relic of simpler times and tastes, perhaps, yet one that still brings warm memories to generations of happy campers, like the Esdale family of Walpole — is worth the aggravation. Campground owners do not survive on hot dogs and ’smores alone, after all. The woodsy escape they offer families may be priceless, yet the cost of doing business is anything but.

“For us, it’s where our kids really grew up, an enclave where everyone knew and cared for each other,’’ says Stephen Esdale, a nursing-home consultant whose family has been camping at Pinewood Lodge in Plymouth for 40 years. Though his three children are now in their 20s and older, they still make use of his two seasonal campsites there, the campground experience remaining for them, Esdale says, “like the old neighborhood used to be, very safe and very family-oriented, a lifestyle that’s really based on the land and park.’’

Yet over the past five years, according to MACO, facilities like Pinewood and Tispaquin have been disappearing at the rate of more than one per year. Many struggle with state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulations limiting their septic-system capacity, effectively quashing expansion plans, according to association board member Marcia Galvin. Like small businesses everywhere, they face a host of other challenges, too, from land use and tax bills to competition from more upscale vacation options.

“A lot of these campgrounds started as family farms,’’ Galvin says. By converting farmland to camping facilities, family members were able to hold onto the land for another generation or two without selling off their valuable real estate.

Now, she says, “it’s hard to make a living with restrictions that make growth almost impossible.’’ Of particular concern are DEP regulations that calculate water usage at 90 gallons per campsite per day, a figure the campground association’s 73 owner-members contend is unrealistically high. They’ve hired Merrill Associates, a Hanover engineering company, to conduct its own study of campground water usage, hoping to submit its findings to the DEP by summer’s end.

A bill requiring the DEP to review its regulations, with input from campground owners and state Department of Recreation and Conservation officials, is before the House Ways and Means Committee. Supporters point to the economic benefit camping brings to the state: More than 450,000 people use the state’s campgrounds every year, representing 3% to 4% of Massachusetts’ $16 billion tourism industry. Owners seek relief from the so-called “10,000 lot rule,’’ which limits campground water discharge to 10,000 gallons per lot per day, regardless of lot size. According to Pinewood Lodge owner Jim Saunders and others, the rule ignores such factors as the lower discharge rates from recreational vehicles equipped with holding tanks.

Rep. James Murphy of Weymouth, one of the bill’s cosponsors, says campground owners have been put in a bind, unable to use more of their open land yet reluctant to sell underused acreage to make ends meet. “Family camping is a vital part of our economy, an industry we should promote, preserve, and protect,’’ says Murphy, who hopes to see the bill reach the House floor this summer.

Whatever the bill’s fate, campground ownership has been steadily losing much of its old appeal, if not its profitability. A few campgrounds have been sold to national chains, others to developers with noncamping uses in mind. Crystal Springs Campground in Bolton closed last year. In 2006, after six decades, Wyman’s Beach Family Campground in Westford folded its tents, its lakeside setting now home to Summer Village at the Pond, a community of seasonal cottages priced at $174,000 and up. Village amenities include a general store, fitness center and tennis courts.

Brock Tucci, who owns the East Wareham campground Jellystone Park, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection recently, a legal remedy he soon expects to be seeking for his business. Tucci’s 50-year old, 600-acre campground (240 acres with 475 permitted campsites, the remainder open land) belongs to a franchised chain themed to the “Yogi Bear’’ cartoon show. About 2,000 campers enjoy it on a typical summer weekend, says Tucci, who spent $5 million improving the facility after his father, the previous owner, died in 2001.

He’s in a quandary over what to do next, though. Selling to a developer would be a last resort, Tucci says, but he’s already cut his 55-person workforce in half this year. Developing a second, more adult-friendly campground would boost his bottom line, he adds, but he doubts complaining neighbors and an unsympathetic town zoning board will allow it.

In Gloucester, Cape Ann Camp Site owner Bob Matz says that if he had to depend on camping for his livelihood, he too might pack up. A retired chemist and businessman, Matz runs a seasonal, 90-acre campground that’s been in his family for over 60 years. The business itself is marginally profitable, says Matz, citing “the pressure of getting a year-round bill for a short season.’’ The campground is open from mid-May to mid-October. “If you look at a business where you spend $1 million for the land and charge $30 to $40 a night to use it, it doesn’t work.’’

One frustrated campground owner who has tested the DEP’s 90-gallon metric is James Palmatier, owner of Prospect Lake campground in North Egremont. Two years ago he metered his 129-site campground’s water usage, calculated at between 500,000 and 650,000 gallons for the season — significantly less than the 2.5 million gallons projected by state officials.

“I’d say 50% of the campgrounds in this state are in jeopardy,’’ Palmatier says.

If not an endangered species, “they’re definitely more of a challenge to run these days,’’ says Paula Carroll, executive director of the campground association. Three-quarters of her membership are family-owned operations, she noted, and “some might not have the next generation willing to step up and take over. Most want their [properties] to stay a campground, but that’s not always possible.’’

Four years ago, Carroll and her family sold their Dennis Port campground, Campers Haven, to Carefree Corp., a Florida company that owns a chain of campgrounds and recreational-vehicle parks throughout the United States. Carroll’s family had owned the camp for 18 years and negotiated an agreement that the campground would stay just that. Still, there are no legal guarantees attached, Carroll concedes.

For lifelong campers like Brockton residents Dottie and Walter Egan, it’s the emotional attachments that matter most. The Egans have been parking their trailer at Tispaquin Family Campground for 21 summers. Both rave about the facility’s neatness, neighborliness, and affordability. Their accumulated memories of summer days camping by the water’s edge aren’t easily transferable. “I doubt we’d look for another site if this one closes,’’ says Walter Egan. “If the town loses Tispaquin, they’d lose me, too.’’

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