Ossipee – June 2, 2009 — Westward Shores Campground, located in West Ossipee on the northwestern shore of Ossipee Lake, is seeking approval for a condominium conversion. Their application appeared before the Ossipee Planning Board on May 5th and was continued to June 2nd.
A Family Campground
Westward Shores Campground has been in operation since the 1940s and has been owned since 1999 by Charlie Smith, with John Hardie and Mark Debitetto as part of his management team.
In its early years, the campground likely had a temporary look about it, with people camping in tents and small pop-ups. Nowadays, the campground has a more permanent look to it: people camp in campers that have skirted underbodies, attached wooden decks, awnings, and add-a-rooms; the sites are decorated like yards with picket fences and lawn ornaments; and everywhere are the accoutrements of summer fun — picnic tables, patio tables and chairs, gas grills, golf carts, bicycles, tricycles, and beach toys.
The campground’s dirt roads snake through the woods up to the lake, where there are two sandy beaches and access to the campers’ boat slips. Facilities include a store, three bathhouses, a main building, and tennis courts. The sites are heavily wooded and well-maintained. It looks like a place where families return summer after summer to enjoy the lake and the company of their campground neighbors.
Westward Shores operates primarily as a seasonal campground. Sites are categorized by location and are priced accordingly: “lakefront” sites rent at $7,195 per season, “water view” are $4,050, and “woodland” sites cost $3,200 per season. A boat slip costs an additional $1,325 per summer.
According to the campground’s website, most sites are occupied by seasonal campers, “allowing families to set up their site and call it their home on the lake all summer.” The campground has some sites available for nightly rental by people who are “usually referred guests by…seasonal families.”
According to Smith and Hardie, Westward Shores is not a year-round campground. Its summer season is defined as sometime in early-May (the date depends upon the weather) through mid-October. The campground is open in the winter from the day before Thanksgiving until all the snow is gone. During the winter months, the campground is only partly operational: water to the sites is turned off, leaving campers with access to water at the heated bathhouses.
In the words of owner Smith, his campground is “a family campground” for “summer fun” and “winter snow machining.”
The Condo Conversion Application
It sounds like a great place. So why pursue a condo conversion?
According to Smith and Hardie, the push for the condo conversion came from long-time campers — people who have invested significant funds into their camps and who want the security of owning the sites underneath them.
As things stand now, if the campground were ever to change ownership, a new owner could evict all the long-time, seasonal campers, condominimize the campground, and sell all the sites to the highest bidders.
However, according to Smith, if his condo conversion application were to be approved, a win-win situation would ensue: campers would have piece of mind (plus some equity) and revenue would be generated for the town of Ossipee and for the state.
But what if a long-time camper either does not want to or is unable to purchase the site? Would seasonal rentals still be available? Hardie stated that such campers would still be able to rent seasonally, and that if someone else wanted to purchase the site, the camper would have the right of first refusal. Campers who still don’t want to purchase would not be required to purchase; it’s “not an absolute.”
Smith and Hardie both emphasized if the condo conversion is approved, the only change would be a “change of ownership.” They would “not be adding anything new” to the campground and “nothing is going to be changed within the park.”
The condo conversion application appeared before the Ossipee Planning Board at its regular meeting on May 5. Bryan Berlind of Land Tech, a surveying and engineering firm located in Ossipee, presented the application.
He described the campground as sitting on a 136.5-acre parcel that is spread out over five separate lots with frontage on Ossipee Lake and the Bearcamp River. Two-thirds of the parcel is undeveloped, and the developed portion contains 251 campsites. If the condo conversion is successful, the five lots would be merged into one.
The conversion actually consists of two applications. The first, “Westward Shores Condominium I,” seeks a “conversion into six units.” The existing campground would be split into six condominiums: (1) the manager’s house and office; (2) the maintenance garage; (3) the restroom/showers, recreation hall, and gate house; (4) the marina store; (5) the apartment above the garage; and (6) the mailboxes installed on the gate house.
The second application uses those mailboxes as the mechanism for offering ownership to campers: “Westward Shores Condominium II” seeks a “conversion of Westward Shores Condominium I, Unit 6, into 251 units.”
According to Planning Board meeting minutes, Berlind stated that “Unit 6” consists “of 251 mail boxes. Campers would pay association dues rather than rent and would be buying an interest in the camp site.” Campers would not be purchasing a specific camp site; rather, they would purchase a 1/251% share of Unit 6 – the mailboxes.
The Planning Board found Application I to be “complete with the inclusion of the Fire Chief’s response to the plan” (the Board hadn’t yet received the Chief’s response). The Planning Board requested more information regarding Application II: the condominium documents, a map showing the camp sites, and the legal opinion of an attorney indicating that there are no legal problems with this application.
By meeting’s end, the Planning Board approved “Condominium I conditional on receiving the Fire Chief’s approval and acceptable condominium documents” and continued the case until June 2.
Site Ownership Offered to Campers
Smith and Hardie stated that they expect to receive final approval at the June 2nd meeting and will then initiate the approval paperwork with the State, a process, they predict, could take a while.
According to information disseminated from the campground to their campers, management began to offer site ownership to their campers in May. Management wanted to give their long-time campers first shot at site ownership before offering sale to the general public, and they were prepared to accept intent-to-purchase documents and refundable $500 deposits, to be held in escrow. This initial offer had a due date of June 1.
Despite the conditional approval granted by the Planning Board on May 5, delays in the process led management to step back from the June 1 deadline. Though they are proceeding with the planned conversion, management has communicated to campers that there is no deadline for purchase and that all escrowed deposits will be returned.
A Useful Comparison
There might be some lessons to learn from a similar condo conversion of another campground on the lake.
In 1988, Totem Pole Campground, located on the Freedom side of the lake, condominimized. It’s now called Totem Pole Park, a condominium campground. The conversion agreement with the Town of Freedom included a restriction on the camping season, defining it as May through October and prohibiting winter camping. The understanding was that owners in Totem Pole could not become town residents.
In 2003, the Totem Pole Park Association applied to the Freedom Planning Board for an extension of its operating calendar, asking for an increase to eleven months from six months. The application was eventually approved by the Freedom Planning Board, but not without extensive public dissent.
Freedom residents expressed concern that an eleven-month operating calendar would allow owners in Totem Pole to become town residents, to vote in town elections, and to register their vehicles in Freedom. Public Hearings were held, and pressure was put on town officials to revoke the 2004 decision, thereby re-establishing the six-month calendar.
In September 2005, the Planning Board voted not to revoke the 2004 agreement. In the summer of 2006, the Totem Pole Association applied for a minor change in their calendar: rather than closing during the month of March, they asked to be closed from November 15 through December 15. The Planning Board approved the change.
If the Westward Shores condo conversion is approved, will Ossipee town officials and residents face the same issues?
Hardie and Smith stated that with or without the condo conversion, the campground is uninhabitable year-round. Water to individual sites is turned off during the winter and anyone who visits their camps during those months has to get all their water from one of the bathhouses; it would be difficult and unpleasant for a family to live in their camper all winter.
Furthermore, given Westward Shores’ calendar of operations, it’s impossible for campers to inhabit their camps for a consecutive six months a year; therefore, they can’t be town residents.
In the end, Smith and Hardie emphasize that they “care about the lake.” After all, Ossipee Lake is their “livelihood.” They say they have no interest in putting “a burden on the infrastructure of the town.” They’re just trying to make their campers happy.
The Westward Shores Condominium applications are on the agenda for the June 2 meeting of the Ossipee Planning Board.
[Cynthia Davis is an Ossipee Lake Alliance contributing reporter]