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Small Inspired Virginia Bill to Counter State Parks

February 1, 2012 by   - () Leave a Comment

State park campgrounds in Virginia would have to raise their fees and limit their offerings under a bill  in the General Assembly.

The bill requires state parks to avoid competing with private-sector campgrounds, by setting their  camping fees at or above the mean fee charged by local private campgrounds. It also would bar state parks from expanding new camp areas unless they could show nearby private campgrounds weren’t providing enough camping areas, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reported.

The bill was filed by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, and Sen. Tom Garrett, R–Louisa. Delegate Peter Farrell, who represents Louisa, has a House version.

Reeves and Garrett said the bill came to them from Bill Small, a Louisa man who has run the Small Country Campground for some 36 years.

Small said a number of private campgrounds are threatened by state parks near them, and that it has been an increasing problem over the years. The state parks pay no taxes, he said, and have no costs for mortgages or equipment like the private campgrounds.

The parks expand camping areas and amenity offerings with no consideration about whether new camp sites are actually needed in the area, Small said.

In Charlottesville, a new state park—Biscuit Run—is slated to have riding trails, cabins, and other amenities. It’s 20 minutes from Small’s campground and in the vicinity of several other campgrounds—none of which are at capacity, Small said.

Small’s Case

Small said he doesn’t object to state parks offering primitive camping. It’s when they add the perks — the 50-amp hookups that can provide power to big RVs, for example — that the competition comes into play.

“They are setting fees that are below the normal competitive rates of campgrounds in the area. They’re undercutting us in every way, shape or form,” Small said. “They’re putting in sewer, they’re putting in 50-amp; in other words they’re competing directly with us in the high-end thing. I don’t have a problem, or none of us do, with state parks in general, backpacking and primitive camping.”

A list of camping fees from the state parks’ website shows that primitive camping rates are about $12 to $15 a night. For $27 to $32 you can get electrical and water hookups. Small said the average rate for water and sewer hookups at a private campground is about $35, and the private campgrounds’ “super sites”—offering hookups for TV and Internet—can go up to about $50 to $55 a night.

“We have an opportunity right now to level the playing field a little bit,” Small said. “It won’t even get us close to being level. But at least it will take us a step in the right direction.”

The bills are opposed—strenuously—by members of the Virginia Association of Parks and the Friends of Lake Anna State Park.

Those groups are led by Johnny and Jo Finch, who say the bill would hurt state parks that are underfunded by the state as it is.

Johnny Finch said Virginia’s state parks were 47th in the nation in funding in 2010.

“As the economy has gone downhill, the parks have suffered even more in terms of the appropriations funded out of the general fund,” Finch said.

The bills would only increase the funding problem, he said.

“The bills are designed to force Virginia state parks to raise camping fees in an attempt to drive potential patrons away from Virginia state parks,” he said. “It is not the role of the state government to artificially or selectively raise the prices of state services in an effort to drive potential customers to a private business offering the same or similar services.”

Finch said state parks help drive tourism; he cited a state report that said park attendance in 2011 was—at 7.8 million visitors—the second-highest that’s been seen in 75 years. The report also said that for every state dollar spent on parks, visitors generate $10 for the local economy.

The Finches have urged the members of their groups to write the lawmakers, trying to get the bills stricken or voted down.

So far they’ve had some impact; Farrell said he thinks the issue needs more study and discussion before a bill is passed.

But Reeves and Garrett feel Small has a valid point.

“The state has a monopoly, and they can undermine and basically kill the mom-and-pop campgrounds,” Reeves said.

Garrett said state parks have an unfair advantage, in part because they don’t have the tax and regulatory burdens that private campgrounds do.

He cited a former delegate’s favorite yardstick — that if a service can be found in the Yellow Pages, the state ought not to be offering it, or at least competing with it.

“It’s a free market concept,” Garrett said. “We have parks to be proud of in the commonwealth, but they shouldn’t have an unfair advantage.”

Addendum

Here is a copy of Bill Small’s Letter to the Editor of Woodall’s Campground Management that was published in its February issue:

Editor’s Note: William E. Small, owner of Small Country Camping in Louisa, Va., provided this Letter to the Editor on an opposing viewpoint on the contentious issue of state park campgrounds joining private RV park and campground associations. On Oct. 13, Small delivered a petition to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his secretary of commerce and trade, James Cheng, calling for a halt to expansion and construction of all campgrounds, cabins, marinas and other facilities that compete with private industry. Several Virginia campground owners signed the petition.

Dear Editor:

Not all is as cozy as it may seem from your article in the Nov. issue (ARVC Clarifies Controversial State Park Position…). In Virginia, for example, a number of private campgrounds – including 14 members of the Virginia Campground Association (VCA) and a group of Kampground of America members ¬– have sent petitions to the Governor demanding that the state stop building camping sites and cabins.

David Gorin tends to walk lock step with ARVC without considering the interests of many of the VCA members. Unfortunately, a large group of Virginia campground owners recognize that the state parks are building an unsustainable empire. They build and build and then can’t keep up with repairs and they demand more and more personnel to service them. VCA has not benefitted from state park membership…in fact the state parks take advantage of VCA in their directory and grossly discounted dues.

So, please don’t lump Virginia with the states that are “enjoying the fruits of collaboration” with state parks. Obviously not all Virginia campground owners or VCA members agree with the Executive Director.

Sincerely,

William E. Small

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