BERLIN – Permanent residents of White Horse Park are fighting the county’s plans to enforce the campground regulations that currently govern the community.
A group made up of full-time residents of White Horse Park is seeking approval of a text amendment that would allow 25% of the park to be inhabited year-round by residents over the age of 55. Currently, the park is classified as a campground subdivision and as such is meant to be seasonal. More than 50 of its 465 units, however, are occupied on a full-time basis and have been for years.
“Truly the county has not enforced this up until the last year-and-a-half, for whatever reason,” said Hugh Cropper, the attorney representing the homeowners. “Imagine owning a house, living in it for 20 years, and having the county come and kick you out.”
According to Ed Tudor, the county’s director of development review and permitting, both White Horse Park and Assateague Pointe were approved as campground subdivisions in the 1980s. Under the zoning code, campground subdivisions shall not be occupied “as a place of primary residence or domicile.” Between Sept. 30 and April 1, units or sites can not be occupied for more than 30 consecutive days or an aggregate of 60 days.
Tudor said that since the two campground subdivisions were created decades ago, the county did occasionally receive complaints regarding people living in their units full-time.
“We’d had complaints from time to time but it’s almost impossible to enforce,” he said.
About two years ago, however, complaints reached the Worcester County Commissioners and staff members were asked to look into the situation. They contacted White Horse Park management and were advised that the park would remind its residents of the restrictions on occupancy.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said complaints regarding year-round occupancy at White Horse Park had grown in recent years. He said that when the county asked the park’s board to address the issue initially, that request was ignored because “four or five of the directors were living there.”
The county continued to pursue the issue, however, and in a letter last fall the president of the park’s board wrote that steps were being taken to enforce the park’s year-round occupancy prohibition. Brian Fenstermacher, president of the board, wrote that park management was monitoring occupancy and sending warning letters to residents who violated rules.
“Progress has already been made,” he wrote. “Since June 30, 2018, four homes of full-time residents have been sold and five full time renters have moved out…”
Meanwhile, year-round residents who don’t want to move hired Cropper to help them find a solution. He says there are now about 55 people living in White Horse Park full-time. Many of them are senior citizens and have lived there for decades.
“There’s never been a problem,” he said. “At first I wasn’t going to take their case but there’s probably 30 people that truly have nowhere to go. We have a shortage of affordable housing in this community.”
Cropper drafted and submitted to the county a text amendment that would permit, by special exception, year-round occupancy of no more than 25% of the units within a campground subdivision by people at least 55 years old.
When it was initially presented to Worcester County Planning Commission in May, officials opted to table a decision on the amendment.
“We’ve been inundated with emails on both sides,” Tudor said.
Many of those who sent emails, citing tension within the community, opted not to sign their missives.
“It’s always been against the bylaws to live here full-time,” one anonymous letter reads. “Just because you got away with it doesn’t make it the law. Even if the exception is made to allow 25% of the unit owners to live in the park full time how are you going to determine who has that privilege?”
A hand-written letter from a 19-year resident of White Horse Park points out that her assessment notice from the state lists her White Horse Park property as her permanent residence. “If I were forced to vacate my home based on a ‘campground subdivision’ I would be homeless,” she wrote. “I have nowhere to go and housing in this area is way beyond my resources.”
Other emails include similar pleas.
“We were shocked last June to find out we were living in violation of the county code,” one woman wrote. “Many of my elderly neighbors have lived here for years. We spent everything in our savings with the purchase of this home. We have actively been looking for other purchase options here in the county but unable to find anything within our budget. As senior citizens a mortgage payment is not an option for us.”
Though many people have lived in the park for years, the White Horse Park Declaration of Restrictions does state that the facility is meant for seasonal use.
“No campsite shall be the primary and principal residence of the owner, or any other occupant thereof, it being the express intention of the declarant that each campsite be used and occupied for camping and recreational purposes only by a single household,” the document reads.
Nevertheless, Cropper says not everyone realized they weren’t allowed to live at White Horse Park when they bought there. One of his clients, Susan Naplachowski, even worked as park manager while living in her unit full-time. Cropper said the issue was also complicated by the fact that many of the full-time residents had upgraded their homes—meaning they’d gone through the county to get building permits—and that many listed their White Horse Park address on their driver’s licenses as their permanent residence.
He believes the text amendment he submitted creates a way for Naplachowski and her fellow year-round residents to stay in White Horse Park. County employees, however, have various concerns with the proposal. Tudor said it would be difficult to enforce and also pointed out that White Horse Park had been developed as a campground and was never designed for year-round occupancy. He said roads within White Horse Park were constructed to private campground standards and would need to be upgraded to meet today’s construction standards. He said water and sewer issues also came into play. Currently, White Horse Park has 186 EDUs (equivalent dwelling units) and is assessed at 100 gallons per day per lot for seasonal occupancy. The park is billed quarterly and has just one meter for the entire property. If full-time occupancy were permitted, Tudor said the campground would need an additional 279 EDUs — one for each lot — at a total cost of $4.2 million.
“If you move to a permanent year-round use that’s no different than any other subdivision and should be charged the same EDUs,” Tudor said.
Many property owners who don’t live in White Horse Park full-time say the increase in infrastructure costs have prompted them to oppose the text amendment.
“The majority of the homeowners abide by the rules and should not be punished,” reads another anonymous email. “We do not want to incur any additional costs for the minority to live there full-time.”
Cropper maintains that nothing need change as far as the park’s existing infrastructure, as it had been sufficient for the community since it was built.
“The roads have worked for 25 years,” he said.
He added that though staff predicts a floodgate of applications from people interested in being among the 25% allowed through the amendment, he doesn’t expect that to happen. He said there were only two campground subdivisions in the county and there would never be any more.
“Assateague Pointe is already maxed out with sewer and their board doesn’t want year-round occupancy. For all intents and purposes, the only place it’ll apply to is White Horse Park.”
Troy Purnell, a board member at Assateague Pointe and one of its original developers, confirmed that the board there does not want to see full-time occupancy allowed and as such doesn’t support the proposed amendment. He said they’re afraid that allowing any sort of year-round living in the 529-site park could turn it into a low-income community.
“It’s not what they thought they were buying into,” he said.
Purnell was among the dozens in attendance at the June 6 meeting of the Worcester County Planning Commission to testify regarding the proposed text amendment. Though many of those in attendance were there to voice support of the amendment, Cropper said he felt as though he had to table it when he realized county staff had prepared a presentation he hadn’t seen prior to the meeting.
“It was completely one sided,” he said. “Staff should be neutral, there to help both sides.”
Nevertheless, he plans to return to the commission’s July meeting to seek a recommendation for the amendment. Regardless of whether that recommendation is in favor of or against his proposal, the Worcester County Commissioners will be the next to review it. Bunting says he will consider whatever Cropper presents with an open mind.
“He’s a good attorney,” Bunting said. “He may come up with a good solution but if it comes to the point the county has to enforce (current occupancy restrictions) we will.”