Chairman Norm Sutherland maintains a firm stance that the Highland Planning Board will not give approval on a site plan review for a large-scale campground expansion project without the input of the …
Chairman Norm Sutherland maintains a firm stance that the Highland Planning Board will not give approval on a site plan review for a large-scale campground expansion project without the input of the National Park Service (NPS). The location of the project in Highland’s River Overlay District dictates that the project be reviewed to ascertain that it is in substantial conformance with the River Management Plan that guides development in a designated river corridor.
The $40 million-plus project aspires to turn the former family-owned Kittatinny Campground on Route 97 in Barryville into Northgate Resorts’ newest upscale family camping brand, Camp FIMFO (Fun Is More Fun Outside). Beyond incorporating new and improved amenities, such as a miniature golf course, pool and a tropical-style splash pool laguna area, the proposed plan is to outfit 146 tenting campsites with “park-style RVs,” complete with electricity, water and sewer.
It’s an enormous infrastructure project that has involved months-long review and revisions to the proposed septic system plan, stormwater management maps, as well as discussion and changes about the removal of trees and boulders to improve the roadways throughout the proposed resort to provide connected utilities to the recreational units.
And there it hits a snag. The connectivity to the proposed infrastructure indicates that the camping units are permanent. As such they are not compatible with the River Management Plan. So says the park service.
The Delaware River supplies 16 million people with drinking water. Flows from the Upper Delaware keep the salt from infiltrating municipal drinking-water wells in downstream municipalities such as Trenton, Camden and Philadelphia. In light of these critical functions, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decree regulating water flows of the Delaware River in 1954. And in 1978, as a way to protect this important resource, and in response to the debacle of building the Tocks Island Dam below Milford in the 1960s, the Delaware River was added to the Wild & Scenic River System.
With an act of Congress, the river was designated in three parts—the Upper Delaware, the Middle Delaware and the Lower Delaware. While the land in the Middle Delaware had been condemned for the never-to-be-built dam, an experimental private-public partnership was enacted to preserve the Upper Delaware and keep the land in private hands. The proposal would preserve this important natural resource through local zoning and a river management plan.
The process of writing and implementing the River Management Plan was a contentious land-use battle. Outside agitators were brought in by the commercial canoe liveries that feared for their livelihoods. The valley exploded with anxious and oft-times violent outbursts. Federal hearings were shut down with cowbells and fog horns. The fevered pitch included an attack on the River Reporter, which was dutifully reporting the misinformation, and cooled when my and the then-editor’s house burned on a windy Sunday afternoon in August 1986.
The community was shocked that the threat-filled rhetoric and that the epic fight between the protection of a significant natural resource and private property rights took such a personal and devastating turn. Over the years, an uncomfortable truce has been maintained between the towns, their representatives on the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) and the NPS.
While the NPS has the final authority over development with eminent domain, its jurisdiction is limited to the river up to the high-water mark and the small number of acres it owns. The UDC, founded in 1988, was set up to represent the interests of the local governments and private landowners to conserve the land area through existing zoning and authorities.
With this, the first determination that a proposed large project is not in compliance with the River Management Plan, the question of whether the valley will be protected will now be challenged.
This time, it will not take the form of community violence, but may rather be fought in the courts. Following the June 26 Highland Planning Board meeting, lawyer Daniel Ruben stated that Northgate may litigate if necessary to protect its private property rights.
The UDC itself is split, with many of the original members on the council for 35 years advocating that private property rights are equally as important as the protection of the river. Meetings about the NPS determination have devolved into shouting matches.
Not surprisingly, there are some of the same tactics being used to sway public opinion, including an “us versus them” stance, projecting fears that the valley’s economic viability will be negatively impacted, and misrepresentation about the process in order to preserve power over the outcome.
Northgate Resorts, one of the largest family camping corporations—which has been buying up historic family-owned properties and Jellystone Campgrounds across the nation—is playing the role of victim and soon-to-be bully, portraying the NPS as unfair and uncooperative and not following its own process. According to the NPS, Northgate has not been forthcoming with information that was needed to make a determination. Sutherland has lost his patience and perspective as the process has dragged on, feeling out of the loop, even when invited in.
As in most situations, there is a kernel of truth to every perspective. Those in opposition to the park service because of the potential power it had to shut down projects are absolutely accurate in their assessment. Those who fear that a large corporation could bully its way over the private property rights of those with environmental and quality of life concerns have a valid point.
With our history, we are all aware that the process of private/public partnerships are by their nature messy. We already have experienced what heightened rhetoric yields: community upheaval. Egos, ideology and power struggles need to be set aside. Rather than using divisive tactics, the parties need to come to the table in some mutually agreed-upon structure and explore possible collaboration and changes to the project so that it is in compliance.
If no compromise can be found, the NPS needs to stand firm on its determination that Camp FIMFO, a cookie-cutter brand with no ties to the Upper Delaware, is not in substantial compliance. The Town of Highland Planning Board needs to act on its intention to be guided by the NPS’ evaluation of the project and deny approval of the proposed site plan.
Without a doubt, the process has been lengthy and there have been missteps by all parties along the way. However, the outcome cannot be that a national corporation makes moot the whole of our 40-year history and our future in protecting and managing this amazing natural resource area with threats of litigation and demands that the area conforms to its newest corporate brand.
[Editor's Note: This article was edited on July 18 to correct the number of park-style RVs to 146, as per the National Park Service determination letter.]
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