The long haul

A positive SEQR declaration would not have to be the end for FIMFO. But it would be a vital opportunity to work through residents’ very real, unsettled concerns.

Posted 9/20/23

If you ask any member of the Highland Planning Board, they will undoubtedly tell you that it’s been a long haul being the lead agency for the review of the Camp FIMFO project. 

They …

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The long haul

A positive SEQR declaration would not have to be the end for FIMFO. But it would be a vital opportunity to work through residents’ very real, unsettled concerns.


If you ask any member of the Highland Planning Board, they will undoubtedly tell you that it’s been a long haul being the lead agency for the review of the Camp FIMFO project. 

They have been reviewing the project since March of 2022. Their contracted engineer, Ken Ellsworth of Keystone Associates, has been in constant conversation since the preliminary proposal for the “improvement” of the former Kittatinny Campground, from a family-owned tenting campground to the newest Northgate Resorts Camp FIMFO-branded family camping resort.

For the record, Northgate, a Michigan-based resort company, has been buying up campgrounds as well as Jellystone properties and applying their brand—essentially turning these independently owned properties into corporate upscale RV-based family camping venues. According to an RV industry representative, who testified at a public hearing on the site plan proposal, this is the future of outdoor camping. Industry lobbyists have worked hard to get permanently installed “park-model RVs” classified as temporary RVs, with wheels and individual VIN numbers. 

The National Park Service does not agree that RVs permanently attached to water, sewer and electric lines are temporary and, as the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River is a “park unit,” has issued a declaration that these are permanent structures and are not in compliance with the 1986 River Management Plan (RMP) that stipulates what development is allowed in the river corridor.

And that is the stage on which the Highland Planning Board finds itself now. Caught between the National Park Service’s declaration that the proposed “improvement” to the Kittatinny Campgrounds is not in compliance with the RMP, and their engineer, who has been working diligently to improve the project and is advising—through a proposed negative-declaration resolution—that there will only be small negative effects on the environment.

This is the first large dispute over compliance with the river management plan, and it puts members of the Highland Planning Board squarely in the landscape of private property rights versus the conservation and protection of a significant natural resource, as decreed by Congress.

Make no mistake. The Highland Planning Board has done its due diligence. It has faithfully reflected and published the hundreds of letters that have been sent to its attention. It has asked, month after month, meaningful questions about the scope of the project and has successfully mitigated some of the more egregious plans by Northgate to essentially turn this traditional tenting site into a seasonal residential amusement park. The proposed mountain coaster was eliminated; the board questioned emergency response, traffic congestion and advocated for the possible greening of the project.

For its part, Northgate, beyond eliminating the mountain coaster and blasting rock as a way of widening roads, has made no concessions—to valley culture, to recycling, or to providing any kind of assistance to emergency management. They propose to double the population of the Town of Highland on weekends from April through October and will not provide any kind of camp infirmary or EMT coverage for their customers, relying solely on the town’s volunteer EMS. 

Calls for anything that does not fit into the generic cookie-cutter branding have fallen on unresponsive ears. Company representatives have proclaimed at public meetings that the park service has not been in communication, thus practicing a deliberate us-versus-them strategy.

From where we sit, this is not a partner that cares about the community. This is a partner who has a playbook that relies solely on the purchase of existing properties, claiming grandfathered or existing uses, as they fundamentally change the whole nature of the property.

From Northgate’s perspective, they are insistent on a clear path for doing what they want, and have a record throughout the country of using legal bullying to force their way. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

At the planning board’s July meeting, Northgate lawyer Daniel Rubin made it clear that if they didn’t get what was “right” for their proposal, litigation was the next step, and they invited the town under their legal umbrella.

We don’t need their legal umbrella. We need to fully study the environmental and cultural impacts of their proposal. And as those are potentially valley changing, Northgate, if it wants to exist in the Upper Delaware, needs to understand the environment and character of this significant natural area. 

To that end, the Town of Highland Planning Board needs to stick to its intentions to fully vet the project and respect its own members’ questions about traffic concerns, EMS coverage, the removal of 1,000 tons of natural material, the cutting down of approximately 14 acres of trees, and the installation of acres of impervious surfaces and infrastructure. 

Through the town’s engineering consultant—who has been working for the last year with Northgate engineers to improve and mitigate the environmental impact of the well, wastewater and stormwater systems—the board is now facing a draft resolution that this project will have no significant environmental impact. 

If the planning board adopts that resolution at its next meeting on September 27, there will be no real analysis of those impacts. And that’s what Northgate wants: a declaration of negative impact for an over-$40-million infrastructure project, located on a hillside on the banks of the Upper Delaware River, a federally protected river.

I don’t think you need to be an engineer to know that this huge project needs to be investigated further.

And that is exactly what the Town of Highland Planning Board needs to insist on. They have successfully completed the Environmental Assessment Form leading them fundamentally to the place to issue a positive declaration—which simply says there will be moderate impacts. From there, the New York State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process dictates that an Environmental Impact Statement be developed. 

The statement leads to a scoping session, whereby the public and the board have another opportunity to outline their concerns that the developer absolutely needs to address.

The Highland Planning Board has been careful throughout the process and they need to keep going. The board needs to issue a positive declaration and have Northgate pay for an Environmental Impact Statement.

There is no downside to this—and everything to lose if the Highland Planning Board does not continue to follow through with their due diligence.

highland planning board, camp fimfo, keystone associates, SEQR


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