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RV project in Hinsdale stirs a debate: What is, and isn’t, a summer camp?

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

On Tuesday, Northgate Resort Ventures LLC presented its plan to the Hinsdale Zoning Board of Appeals to transform Camp Emerson into one of the company's branded Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park RV camping properties. This property is across Longview Avenue from the site. 

HINSDALE — Five months after it surfaced, a proposal to build an RV camping destination in Hinsdale is back in play, as its proponents make their pitch, anew, to a different town board.

Northgate Resort Ventures LLC seeks a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to transform historic Camp Emerson into one of its national portfolio of camping destinations, one able to accommodate 317 campsites.

“We are starting over at square one,” Jeff Viner, the ZBA’s chairman, said Tuesday, as the special permit hearing began at the Nessacus Regional Middle School auditorium. “We are here to collect information tonight from the public, from Northgate ... to make an educated decision on this project.”

After three hours of presentations, the board voted to suspend public comments and to continue the hearing to 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14.

Amid talk of storm drains, catch basins, traffic and water pressure, proponents and opponents sparred over a definition that could prove crucial: What makes a summer camp a summer camp?

Northgate’s local lawyer, Jeffrey Scrimo, of Lenox, said the town’s bylaws allow commercial summer camps — and that’s the kind of activity Northgate seeks to pursue.

Nothing in Hinsdale’s bylaws, Scrimo said, bars what the company seeks to do on the Camp Emerson grounds, at 212 Longview Ave.

“This is a well-contained campground, where these RVs would come and go on a short-term basis,” Scrimo said. “This is not Cousin Eddie’s campground on the side of the road.”

A series of town residents, taking the podium later, said no one would mistake what Northgate proposes for a summer camp. And neither should the ZBA, they suggested.

“They can’t really claim that they are a summer camp,” said Eric M. Goidel, of 40 Rose Drive. “You have a three-season operation that wants to call itself a summer camp.”

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Members of Hinsdale's Zoning Board of Appeals listen Nov. 30 to a Northgate representative talk about traffic management in the Camp Emerson area. 

Duane F. Bruce, of 55 South Shore Road, questioned what he said appeared to be Northgate’s attempt to mix use of the terms “commercial campground” and “commercial summer camp.”

“I’d like to submit that these terms are not synonymous,” Bruce said.

While other residents raised concerns about traffic congestion and possible overuse of Plunkett Lake, a longtime owner of a summer camp joined those questioning Northgate’s effort to style itself as a “commercial summer camp.”

Jeff Saltz, who has owned Camp Romaca in Hinsdale since 1995, said that, in his view, Northgate’s plan isn’t anything like a summer camp, as it typically is defined.

“I take issue with the idea that RV park is a summer camp,” Saltz said through a video connection. “There is no way that you could say objectively that an RV park and a summer camp are the same thing. They are operating on a completely different set of regulations. There are critical differences.

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Jeff Saltz, who has owned Camp Romaca in Hinsdale since 1995, said that, in his view, Northgate’s plan isn’t anything like a summer camp, as it typically is defined.

“There is no playing fast and loose with the English language,” Saltz said. “There is no camp director on Earth who would say that an RV park is a summer camp.”

Fred Wang, a part-time resident, said the town’s bylaws have worked to preserve Hinsdale’s rural qualities.

“Your bylaws have been successful in protecting that for 40 years,” Wang said. “This is what will maintain this beautiful town.”

He, too, rejected the idea that Northgate would be operating a summer camp, as commonly understood. And he noted that when the state handed out COVID-19 relief grants to “summer camps,” all 14 recipients in Berkshire County were programs for children.

“There are no RV camps or campgrounds that received summer camp funding,” Wang said.

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Chelsea Bossenbroek, general counsel for Northgate and a member of the family that owns the company, told listeners at the special permit hearing Nov. 30 that visitors to the proposed RV park would be more likely to use the site's amenities, rather than visit Plunkett Lake. 

Scrimo, Northgate’s attorney, offered a rebuttal to challenges to his argument that the project fits the bylaws’ reference to “commercial summer camp.” He noted “eloquent” arguments by project opponents, but said that it is fair play, legally, to use a common definition of “camp.”

Hinsdale’s bylaw writers could have specified that they meant only to endorse the use of children’s camps, he said, but they did not.

“Commercial summer camp — it’s a broad term,” Scrimo said.

In two hours of public comments, just one resident spoke up in support of the RV park, though many have written letters backing the project. The views of residents are included, along with project documents, on a special page of the town’s website.

Linda Yarmey, of River Street, said she has worked as a facility manager at Camp Emerson and believes that Northgate would become a good corporate citizen in Hinsdale.

“Northgate is going to be a shot in the arm for this town,” she said.

Northgate’s pitch

Brent White, of White Engineering in Pittsfield, took to the podium to recap the project’s plan to make the camp’s entrance off Longview Avenue safer by moving it to the south, closer to a crest of a hill. A traffic expert hired by Northgate, Robert Michaud, also described changes he said would improve travel safety.

On a Zoom connection, Michaud took people in the auditorium, and the online audience, through studies that, he said, show the Northgate project would not overwhelm traffic in the area.

“You’d see a vehicle every two to three minutes; it’s a very modest number,” Michaud said of one intersection.

“This is not a project that will introduce lots of delay,” he said.

Wang, who lives near Plunkett Lake and likes to walk the area, said the Northgate application fails to address issues of pedestrian safety.

“Does it take someone to be killed or maimed before pedestrian safety becomes a concern?” he asked. “If they were really so concerned about pedestrian safety, where’s the crosswalk?”

A Northgate representative countered that Longview Avenue has no sidewalks to connect.

“It would not be appropriate to provide crosswalks to nothing,” he said.

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

Investigations editor

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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