Living in a campground without rules

Column by Hal Walter

Rural Life – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

LIVING IN A CAMPGROUND has both advantages and drawbacks. At the top of the list would be neighbors who are regularly absent. At the bottom of the list would be camping trailers that dot the landscape like giant beer cans thrown willy-nilly.

Recently, while out running on a Saturday morning that dawned at 4° above zero, I spied a new addition to the neighborhood — a smallish camping trailer parked on a 35-acre tract. This trailer was colorfully skirted with a flapping green poly tarp, and plugged into a generator that was running flat out. I could imagine the guy (yes, women are much too sensible for this sort of thing) hunched inside this aluminum hut, cooking a can of beanie wienies on a propane flame and watching a college football game on a portable television. There’s the irony of the Sony plugged into the Honda, each machine trying to drown out the roar of the other. The other irony of this setup is that it is parked right in the neighborhood of some of the most bodacious trophy homes in Custer County.

In the vicinity there are many camps like this one. I know of one yurt, three perennial tepees, several small cabins, and numerous camper trailers and pop-up tents. On the ridgeline to the north of my house sits a pop-up tent. I know those campers are in residence whenever I wake up and see from my bedroom window their tent billowing like some sort of giant wind-loving mushroom.

On my road — I guess I can still call it a road rather than a street — there are two houses. including mine, with permanent residents. This isn’t KOA, but according to my count the campers on this road do outnumber permanent residents by a two-to-one ratio. There’s a house that’s been under construction for years, and the owners — day campers — commute depending on the weather all the way from Pueblo to work on it.

Just across the road from my place some folks have maintained a campsite, sometimes with a wall tent, since I’ve lived here. I’ve not known them to use it more than a couple of times on summer holidays. More often, I see someone drive up the driveway and then leave. I suppose they need to look around every now and again to make sure their land is still there.

Some campers are more serious. My neighbor to the east keeps a fifth-wheel trailer well concealed on his 50-acre ponderosa-pine-forested campsite. He and his wife visit a few times each summer, and he usually shows up in the fall with a buddy during hunting season. This last fall he and his hunting buddy came over for dinner one evening and brought along a pitcher of margaritas from which I may never recover — and for which I am still trying to forgive them. Last year, after buying the fifth wheel, this guy gave me his old camper trailer, and he also allows my animals to graze and myself to cut firewood on his place. Except for the tequila incident, he’s been very much a low-impact camper.

Then there’s the situation to the west. There was a cheap-beer flavor to the whole deal right from the start. I never knew the property was for sale, and would have been interested in buying it myself had I known it was on the market and been able to persuade my wife to take a second day job. No sign, no letter, no phone call, no nothing.

I found this difficult to believe after all the kind words I’ve had for the local real-estate paraprofessionals (that’s “para” as in “parasite”). The first I heard about this property being on the market was when the new owner called to ask what the weather was like here in the winter. I told him that when it wasn’t blowing the weather sucked.

Soon, we received notice from the county that the new owners were seeking a variance so that they could build two homes, rather than the commonly allowed single dwelling, right in view of our living room window. The new neighbors seemed like nice-enough folks, though, so we didn’t protest. Then with the coming of the wildflowers we were treated to the rumble of heavy equipment as the county crews upgraded the cul-de-sac to the lot, and the new owners commenced to put in a driveway, dig and pour a foundation, drill a well, install a septic system, run phone and power lines to the site … and then not build a house.

One night last summer I was awakened by noise and lights. Actually I should say morning rather than night because I distinctly remember the clock reading shortly after 2 a.m. At first blur I thought the aliens had landed and they were trying to figure out why the new septic tank to the west was empty, but I quickly realized it was just the neighbors moving in a trailer by the cover of dark. I went back to bed but had difficulty returning to sleep. Ever the Boy Scout, I keep a “For Sale” sign poised and ready in the barn. I felt an incredible urge to get up and nail that sign to my front gate.

The next morning I sadly realized the whole thing was not just a bad dream and the new neighbors began moving the big fifth-wheel around, I suppose trying to find a level place to park it. For the rest of the summer I fought off such urges as investing heavily in goats which would live in the pasture next to these folks, or parking the camper the other neighbor gave me near their fenceline.

Instead, I told myself that they were just keeping the trailer there temporarily while they got back to the task of building their house or houses or whatever they were doing over there. Then this fall these neighbors showed up, moved the trailer once again and skirted the thing, something which lends an air of permanence.

Always the thoughtful neighbor, I ordered up a big metal trash bin and had it placed where it would serve as a landmark when these folks gave directions to their place.

A lawyer acquaintance, who actually deals in real-estate matters such as this, says that the time to act is now, before the thing is grandfathered in. We don’t have covenants per se, but the lone deed restriction for this subdivision indicates outright that trailers are out.

But now even I have a camper trailer, and I don’t want to step on the toes of my other camping neighbor who not only gave me my trailer but keeps his trailer unskirted and out of sight.

“Unskirted” is the key word said the lawyer. He said matter-of-factly that the skirted, permanent-looking fifth-wheel had already devalued our property by 30 percent. We had to look at the situation as if these people were stealing tens of thousands of dollars from us.

The lawyer told us that we could hire him to write a letter and make a call “on behalf of concerned residents” and these neighbors would never have to know who had complained. He said he didn’t mind being a “hired prick” because, frankly, that’s what he is.

He also suggested that for about a grand we could form a homeowner’s association and set up some serious rules. Wrong button to punch. I hate rules. I hate rules. God …. how I hate rules. One of the attractions of living here in the first place was that there were no rules other than the restriction on trailers, and I really didn’t want a trailer anyway.

Here I’m allowed to hang my laundry out to dry and keep noisy jackasses on the premises. I don’t need to consult with the architectural committee if I wish to paint my shed. If I wake up one morning and decide to ranch high-altitude chickens, nobody would give a cluck.

So for now I don’t really know what to do about the situation. The Colorado State Forest Service recently sent out its annual order form for tree saplings and I’m thinking about nurturing a stand of piñons at $28.80 per 30 in order to shield my view. It’s cheaper than the lawyer. I guess the bottom line is we didn’t need no stinking rules until the campground got too crowded. And I like trees a lot better than I like rules.

Writer Hal Walter spent the first five years of his life camped out in a trailer and his last two years writing a monthly column for Colorado Central.