“At what point is it not a campground?” asked Town attorney Allyson Phillips of Young/Sommer LLC at a special meeting of the Gardiner Town Board on August 24. The meeting was dedicated to consideration of the list of waivers requested by Lazy River, LLC in its quest to designate a Campground Floating District and obtain a Special Use Permit (SUP) for its Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Campground. Phillips’ rhetorical question echoed allegations made by many frustrated Gardiner residents that the recreational facility is no longer a mere campground, but has become a theme park, and a public nuisance, since its 2014 acquisition by Northgate Resorts.
Of the dozen waivers of SUP requirements that Lazy River is seeking (a chart can be accessed in the Town Board’s Dropbox, with a link at www.townofgardiner.org/town-board-agenda), the resort operator is claiming that all but two are “preexisting” and should be grandfathered, since the current version of Gardiner’s Zoning Code was not in effect when its expansion site plan was approved in 2014. It quickly became clear at the meeting that, in the wake of several years of complaints by irate neighbors – especially residents of Farmers’ Turnpike, directly across the Wallkill River from the facility – Town officials are no longer inclined to entertain that argument.
Town supervisor Marybeth Majestic kicked off the discussion with a request that Board members recap their primary concerns about the project. For herself, she listed much-discussed quality-of-life issues first, including noise, light pollution, drifting smoke, inadequate visual screening and buffers. She next cited the question of “park model” RVs, flooding problems, management and security.
While the rest of the Board seemed mainly in accord, several placed heavier emphasis than previously heard at these meetings on concerns about safety and the obstacles to evacuating the campground quickly in case of flooding or fire. Councilman Warren Wiegand also mentioned the possibility of gun violence in such a densely populated area as worrisome.
The ongoing substitution of park model RVs for mobile RVs was cited by several as problematic, in terms of slowing egress; and Lazy River is seeking permission to begin renting them year-round. Councilman Franco Caruccis described these units – of which 117 are already in place, with more planned – as “essentially short-term rentals contained in campground safety nets.”
First on the chopping block, Board members agreed, were the 16 newer campsites on the Wallkill floodplain, numbered 61 to 76, which were not on the 2014 site plan and thus have not yet been approved. “This campground started out with 15 sites. It’s now much larger than was originally planned,” Majestic argued. “Any unapproved sites should be removed. Are we all agreed?”
They were: Board members voted unanimously to exclude from consideration any new campsites added to the site plan since the last round of approvals. They also concurred on rejecting Lazy River’s proposals to convert existing buildings that they have acquired on adjoining sites to year-round residential units. Specific decisions as to how to contain the proliferation of park model RVs – an issue that Majestic termed “the big kahuna” – were tabled for deeper focus at a future meeting.
Several members voiced a determination to have the development scaled back further. More than 100 riverside campsites at Lazy River were inundated by flooding on September 1, 2021, and most of those have already been permitted. “There are just too goddamn many people, too goddamn many campsites…too much density,” said Wiegand. “If we can cut down the population by 50 percent, it would make a huge difference.”
A large part of the reason for the density, Majestic pointed out, is that most of the campground layout was done before the passage of updated campground guidelines in the Zoning Code that specify a minimum of 6,000 square feet (previously 2,400) per “camp space,” which can contain one RV plus a tent. Whether anything can be done retroactively to reduce the number of campers onsite at any given time is a matter for the legal minds to work out, but it appears that the Town will be adopting the position that the facility’s overall change of use from its original intent to be simply a campground means that the old rules no longer hold.
“What Warren said was great,” said councilwoman Carol Richman. “There’s just too many damn campsites. It impacts our safety concerns.”