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Controversial ‘Yogi Bear’ RV park proposal resurfaces in Hinsdale, where developer promises 'mutual prosperity'

Signs on Longview Ave in Hinsdale (copy) (copy)

The national company that wants to create an RV park on the grounds of a longtime summer camp, drawing as many as 300 visitors at a time over seven or eight months a year, is seeking approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals. It needs a special permit that would allow it to buy and transform the family-owned Camp Emerson.

HINSDALE — After two quiet months, one of the most significant zoning questions to face Hinsdale in years is back in play.

A national company wants to create a recreational vehicle park on the grounds of a longtime summer camp, drawing as many as 300 visitors at a time over six months a year. It now seeks approval of a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals that would allow it to buy and spend $10 million to $15 million to transform the family-owned Camp Emerson.

If that sounds familiar, it should. This summer, Northgate Resort Ventures LLC presented a plan to add Hinsdale to its national portfolio of 19 camping destinations. Northgate executives and consultants made their case July 28 to the town's Planning Board, before an auditorium filled with town officials and concerned neighbors.

Then the town hit pause. Officials informed Northgate in August that, given the degree to which Camp Emerson’s use would change, in their estimation, the company needed approval not from the Planning Board, but from the ZBA.

Northgate’s new packet was received Oct. 18 and made available Friday to the public. Town Administrator Bob Graves said the ZBA will hold its first meeting on the application before Thanksgiving, with a second session about three weeks later. No specific dates are in place.

Tessa McCrackin, a spokeswoman for Northgate, said the company is "hoping for an expeditious review."

Graves said town residents will be able to ask questions about the project based on guidelines set by the ZBA chair.

The full 222-page special permit application is available online at the Hinsdale website, as well as a 39-page packet of drawings laying out the proposed campground's site plan, road network and handling of water, stormwater and sewer needs.   

In its application, Northgate echoes its original argument that the RV campground is in sync with how Camp Emerson's owners, the Lein family, have used the property for more than 50 years. The project, it says, would "expand the current use of a commercial campground ...."

The Camp Emerson sale is contingent on Northgate winning approval for a campground able to accommodate as many as 317 RVs, some of them owned by Northgate itself. The company operates similar parks in 13 states, many branded as “Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park.”

In a 11-page proposal atop the application, Northgate makes the case that its project would benefit Hinsdale and not be "detrimental" to town, a key word in the applicable bylaw.

In the company’s pitch to the Planning Board on July 28, Jeff Viner, chair of the ZBA, told Northgate representatives that, in his view, an RV park would not be allowed in the R5 zoning district in which Camp Emerson sits at 212 Longview Ave. He spoke after it was suggested during the meeting that the project was before the wrong board.

“We try to stay with our guidelines,” Viner said at the time. “Can we really say it’s not detrimental to the neighborhood?. … I would need some convincing that you’re not detrimental to the neighborhood.”

People behind a major Hinsdale development say they can tuck 317 RV sites onto a summer camp property without messing up the neighborhood. But Hinsdale officials had questions this week about traffic, water supplies, sewer use, environmental harm — and whether an influx of visitors would be simply too much for nearby Plunkett Lake.

Northgate takes on that question directly in its new application. “Northgate views Camp Emerson as more than just a ‘development opportunity,’" the company says. "As a family-owned company, Northgate Resorts is dedicated to being a good neighbor and member of a community.”

The project would “preserve the Camp Emerson legacy and help bring new opportunities and mutual prosperity to the community," Northgate says. To that end, it notes that it would pay significantly more in taxes than the current camp and in time be one of the area's top employers, after adding 50 jobs in the first two years and 100 more in the next three years.

Neighbors, however, have said they believe the project would overwhelm local roads, strain the town's water and sewer systems and overload use of nearby Plunkett Lake, where Camp Emerson owns property.

In its new application, Northgate says it will take steps to manage noise and lighting on the property, avoid traffic congestion and safeguard the town's public water supply and other infrastructure systems. It says it would limit Plunkett Lake access to what's now allowed by Camp Emerson.

Hinsdale, meantime, has hired its own experts to test Northgate's arguments. The town has hired DPC Engineering LLC to study Northgate’s plan to handle the property’s water and sewer needs. And another consultant, Innovative Data LLC, will explore the project's impact on traffic.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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