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RECAP: PLANNING COMMISSION, NOVEMBER 7, 2023
Residents speak out against commercialized camping and Planning engages in an extended session of "who's on first" on CUPs
The light agenda for the only Twentynine Palms Planning Commission scheduled in November belied a contentious topic: commercialized camping in 29 Palms. With public seating more crowded than usual, and Commissioner Alexander Garcia absent, most of the two hour-plus meeting was spent considering the implications of a proposed matrix outlining how camping might exist alongside businesses and homes in City limits.
We will be publishing a recap of the Homeless Committee section of the meeting in a few days.
Should we allow commercialized camping, and what form should it take?
Community Development Director Keith Gardner kicked off the discussion by saying staff was not seeking a decision but that direction was needed on writing an ordinance addressing camping. According to Gardner, the City has been approached “several different ways by several different entities about different types of campgrounds.”
The Desert Trumpet published an August 14 letter from HipCamp, a company that is similar to AirBnB, in which a definition and designations for-low impact camping areas (LICA) was proposed — they refer to these areas as “conservation-minded.” In current City code, resort or group camping is allowed in single family residential zoning on parcels of 5 acres or more, subject to a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) approved by City Council,1 but we are not aware of any commercial campgrounds in City limits. The HipCamp proposal lowers the minimum acreage to 2 acres with density of one site per acre to maximum of 9 sites.
As we discussed in our agenda preview, Planning staff has proposed a matrix for what commercialized camping might look like in 29. The matrix has three tiers:
High Impact (5 spaces per acre / minimum 10 acre parcel);
Low Impact (1 space per acre / minimum 5 acre parcel); and
Dry/Primitive (1 space per acre / minimum 2 acre parcel).
Staff was looking for direction on the three tier system and in filling in the blanks on a matrix to be used to develop the ordinance.
Planning Commission Chair Jim Krushat opened public comment by reading from four letters, the first being from Hipcamp Senior Manager, Government and Community Relations Michal Rosenoer complimenting Planning staff on the three tiers:
[With] the three-tiered permit structure proposed by staff, the city will be able to provide additional low-impact camping options for visitors while also supporting secondary revenue streams for local landowners of all sizes, not just those who own large parcels. Similarly, by providing clear and accessible regulations that are easily understood by landowners in the area, the City is likely to see more landowners come into compliance which constitutes a safer environment for the community and visitors alike.
This position was echoed by Texas resident Winston Widdes, “I want to support the natural beauty of the land. So having some low fee permits and simpler ways to monetize the land would help me to do that.”
However, a letter from resident Adrian Field took a different view,
The land, the wildlife and the experience of this area is with draws folks here in the first place. Allowing these companies to change the very thing that draws people will inevitably have disastrous long-term effects on our community. Companies wave the promise of large returns to local governments and communities in exchange for ignoring common sense and the desires of the community served.
George Mulopulos requested that Planning clarify parcel sizes because easements can impact listed acreage. He pointed out that the requirements presented in the matrix didn’t account for those variations—a 10-acre parcel becoming 9.7 acres due to easements, for instance. Mulopulos is a Las Vegas-based physician who owns several parcels in the City, including the lot where a solar farm is proposed.
Residents speaking during public comment were uniformly against commercialized camping. They included Heidi Heard who pointed out that “we don’t have a recreation crisis, we have a housing crisis,” Serena Scander2, Jason Phillips, Kat Talley-Jones who spoke to potential fire hazards in unsupervised sites. This author and Jeff Johnson added that strong setbacks would be needed if Planning moved forward.
Astrid Johnson spoke to the irony of legalizing commercial camping when homeless encampments are regularly “shooed away.” “It’s discriminatory,” she said.
Coming back to the Commission for discussion, Chair Krushat equated public concerns about campsites with being against tourism, “I hear this constantly. It's like, oh, we don't want to choose tourism over the neighborhoods. Speaking as somebody who's third generation, I've known since before this town was a city, we've always looked at ways to promote tourism. That was one of our aims.”
Other than in the context of the unhoused, illegal camping has not been raised at Planning or Council meetings as an overwhelming concern in 29 Palms. Yet a common theme of the discussion was the need to “get out in front of the issue.”
Again, Chair Krushat speaking at the start of the discussion:
We’re one of the first to have a VHR regulation back in 2015…I think this is another example. We've got people that like the area, got the campground that's overflowing in the National Park. People need a place to camp and they will do it illegally. As we get a handle on it, and sit there and say okay, we've got a way for them to do that. Now, I agree. I don't want to see them in in a vacant lot next to someone in a regular neighborhood. But I think there's areas where we can have this balance, and that's what we try to achieve, is a balance.
As Commissioners filled in the blanks on the matrix, discussion centered around whether camping should be limited to tourist commercial zoning or be allowed in rural living neighborhoods, with Chair Krushat again leading, “I have VHRs around me and two years ago, Outward Bound set up a campground for a period of time and it wasn’t a problem.” (Note: Krushat is a permitted VHR owner and resides in rural living zoning.)
In fact, while allowing that “no one wants a campground near their neighborhood”, Krushat continued to drive the discussion towards allowing commercialized camping in most circumstances, including changing the minimum acreage from 5 acres with a CUP to 2 acres with a CUP and allowing low impact camping in rural living neighborhoods and tourist commercial zoning at a minimum 5 acres without a CUP. This ignoring of the fact that no resident spoke in favor of commercialized camping yielded audible grumbling and dissatisfaction from the public, punctuated with a shout of “conflict of interest” from the rear of the room as the discussion wore on.
Commissioner Jessica Cure appeared to offer some resistance by pointing out that the while the new state legislation SB620, if passed, allows LICAs, the City has local control. However, due to Commission’s mics being off, most of Cure’s comments were inaudible upon review. Later in the conversation, Cure points out that there will be pushback for camping in rural living and Commissioner Leslie Paahana wonders, “But what about we don’t allow low or dry?” There is a response from Krushat, yet we were unable to verify the wording upon review, again due to being unmic’d. Eventually both dry camping and LICAs landed as permissible in rural living.
The review of the matrix categories was lengthy and as usual we encourage readers to review the video of the meeting for the discussions surrounding number of parking spaces, restrooms, ADA requirements and other details.
The camping item concluded with a conversation about the difference between ministerial permits, such as STR permits, and permits subject to a CUP, which are discretionary. Commissioner Max Walker, a veteran of hearing numerous STR appeals, without having an ordinance on which to deny permits, expressed concern over CUPs. Both Walker and Paahana attempted to gain clarity over whether a neighbor could object to a campsite being located next door to their home, yet became trapped in a circular discussion:
Paahana: So even if your neighbor doesn’t like it, there’s nothing in the code that’s saying that’s going to stop the whole thing.
Walker (partially inaudible, based on memory of discussion): So there’s nothing in the code for us to disallow with a CUP if they met all the requirements?
Gardner: Let’s just take this dry one as an example. A conditional use permit, you put conditions on, that’s conditions, ok? If they can’t comply with the conditions… or if we think an activity, whether it’s an alcohol permit or whatever it is, do you think that’s too big of an impact on the neighbors, it’s disruptive or…
Walker (still partially inaudible, so paraphrasing): In considering AirBnBs, and the impact on the neighbors, we had a code that said well, we’ve checked all these boxes, we have to allow it.
Diane Olsen (staff): Vacation home rental permits are ministerial which means if you meet all the regulations of our code, we issue your permit. Conditional use permits are discretionary which means they come before the Commission and they have the discretion to approve or deny.
Paahana: But without having a finding, there would be no denial.
Gardner: Well if there were a reason to deny something, you would have to make a finding to deny something.
Paahana: And you could say that because she didn’t like it, I will say no.
Gardner: The Commission would have to make appropriate findings.
Paahana: Appropriate findings. Thank you.
Walker (finally back on mic): So if they met all the requirements for the ordinance, it would be difficult for us to find a finding that is legally defensible to say, “No, you can’t have your campground in this rural living area, right?”
Gardner: So keep in mind, if someone were to through this there would be other factors….
And this Planning Commission version of “who’s on first” continues for another 5-6 minutes. Further discussions will take place at the February 20, 2024 Planning Commission meeting.
Public commenters Cindy Bernard, Heidi Heard and Kat-Talley Jones also write for The Desert Trumpet.
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apologies for misspellings, the mics were on low or off during the meeting