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Condo conversion courts controversy

June 11, 2009
OSSIPEE — The planned conversion of Westward Shores Campground in West Ossipee into condominium units gained conditional town approval earlier this month but remains under attack by past and present campers, who have taken to posting comments online criticizing the proposal and campground management as they question the future of their beloved summer getaway.

Further complicating Westward Shores' plans is a foreclosure notice posted in The Boston Globe on June 6. Listing the total assessed value at more than $6.2 million, the notice announced a public auction of the Ossipee Lake campground on July 10 at 11 a.m.

However, as of press time, the auction was not listed on the James R. St. Jean Auctioneers Web site. In a phone interview Tuesday, Westward Shores owner Charlie Smith called a foreclosure "unlikely" and would not comment further on the campground's finances.

By converting the campsites into condominium units, Westward Shores can offer campers the option to purchase an interest in the campground. The Ossipee Planning Board approved the first phase of the project—the conversion of the campground's permanent structures (including the gatehouse, bathhouses, offices and marina) into six units—on May 5. The second application asking to convert 251 campsites into condo units came before the board on June 2.

Bryan Berlind of Land Tech, representing Westward Shores Condominium Campground, LLC, explained at the meeting that those purchasing an interest would not have a specific, designated site. Instead, they would essentially purchase one of 251 mailboxes, allowing them to own rather than lease the right to vacation seasonally at the campground, moor their boats and use the public amenities and facilities.

On Tuesday, Smith said that camper interest facilitated the project, which would allow those who fix up and invest in their campsites to be rewarded. He had lost at least one camper to the converted Totem Pole Park in Freedom and collected 28 deposits on units from interested campers during a short-lived summer pre-sale in May (the $500 deposits have since been refunded because of delays and the economy).

A waterfront lot would cost $59,900, with 20 percent down and 7 percent financing. According to Smith, this works out to be $18 less per month than Westward Shores campers currently pay.

He added that with the housing market rebounding, the campground's value would appreciate. "It seems like a no-brainer to us," said Smith.

But the project has seen some resistance from campers and Ossipee residents, which Berlind admitted in a brief interview on June 2. "The word condominium scares people, and rightfully so," he said. However, he explained the conversion as an added option for ownership, not a dramatic overhaul of the campground.

One source of anxiety for residents as well as the planning board was whether a Westward Shores condominium association would attempt to overturn its agreement with the town to operate only on a seasonal basis.

This happened with Totem Pole Park in Freedom, a limited-facility campground on Ossipee Lake that converted in 1988. Fifteen years later, the park's association pushed to extend its operation to 11 months a year; the Freedom Planning Board approved the application, revoked it due to residents' protests the following year, then eventually accepted the change in 2005. Critics believe such growth increases a campground's burden on town resources, including schools, infrastructure and traffic control.

However, Westward Shores will continue its normal operation schedule, operating from the first week of May through Oct. 15, then re-opening for winter camping the day before Thanksgiving and closing when the snow is gone. Smith said he has no plans to expand his business beyond a seasonal, family campground.

The planning board unanimously approved the condo conversion with safeguards to prevent the campsites from becoming permanent residences and conditions of state approval and a recommendation from West Ossipee Fire Chief Brad Eldridge. There were no comments from the public.

However, on the Ossipee Lake Alliance Web site, www.ossipeelake.org, former and present Westward Shores campers spoke out anonymously against the project, which they claimed was not motivated by camper demand but by dollar signs.

David Smith of the Ossipee Lake Alliance said the Web site hadn't received so many comments since 2008, when two neighbors attempted to remove the Ossipee Lake webcam in Broad Bay. The Alliance itself, however, won't be taking a side. "We're certainly concerned about any 200-plus acre campground on the lake that seems to be in financial trouble…. Other than that we have no opinion on the condo conversion," he said on Tuesday.

More than 50 comments against the project have been posted on the site since June 2. Some campers claimed that they were not well informed by management (which has yet to hold an informational meeting), and the project was moving along quicker than anticipated. Others wrote that the campground's fees and prices were high and its rules were strict, and that Smith rarely invested money in maintaining it. As news of the foreclosure notice spread, comments became even more critical of Westward Shores' management.

Charlie Smith was confused by harsh comments, some of which were personal attacks, and continued to defend the conversion as a positive undertaking by a "pro-people" business. "I don't understand all the scuttlebutt out there about this thing. It's really not bad," he maintained. Of those posting comments, he added, "none of them would sign their names, and a lot of what they said was not true."

He also stressed that the campground strictly enforces its rules for a reason. "We don't want anybody getting hurt," he said, adding, "We've got to protect the people who are there. But you can't keep everybody happy, that's implausible." Smith said rules restricting golf cart use are particularly unpopular, though most campgrounds don't allow them at all.

Westward Shores manager John Hardie believed the online backlash was caused by a lack of understanding and a fear of change. "I don't think they realize this is going to be a positive step… It's not a 'buy or get out' situation," he said, noting his belief that the project will actually protect existing seasonal campers from ever losing their place at Westward Shores. "They think, 'How much is this going to cost me?' They don't realize in the end it's better for them."

Hardie added that disgruntled former campers—booted from the family campground for drunk, unsafe or inappropriate behavior—could be behind some of the comments.

He claimed that Smith has continuously upgraded the campground since purchasing Westward Shores in 1999. Hardie said updates began with the sewer and water systems (which cost nearly $1 million to bring up to standard), and continued with work on the gatehouse/registration facility, dock, dump area, roads, playground and marina. Prices at the marina were realistic, he said, noting, "You don't buy groceries in volume for a little tiny store, so naturally the prices are going to be higher," and he claimed the marina's gas prices are the cheapest on the lake.

As for the issue of communication, Smith said that campers were informed by email. Those that were at the campground the second week of May also received three written notices.

The Carroll County Independent obtained three emails sent to campers in May: One introducing the proposal and answering questions on May 12, a second sent on May 17 inviting campers to a May 23 informational meeting, and a third, sent four days later, cancelling the meeting.

The final email explained that the campground's attorney had not prepared all the necessary documents, a lender had "cold feet," there were delays in the state approval process, and campers were hesitant to buy units because of the state of the economy. "For these reasons, we are going to proceed more slowly with the planned conversion," it said. "There is no deadline to purchase and all escrowed deposits will be returned."

But one Westward Shores camper of more than 15 years (who would speak only on the condition of anonymity) said the emails were not enough and the May 9 request for deposits was premature. "I would think just out of respect that [Smith] would talk to the campers first," she said. The May 12 email was the first she heard of the plans, which had already been before the Ossipee Planning Board.

She doubted many seasonal campers were interested in ownership. "I don't know of any camper who said they wanted to purchase their site," she said, noting that even if a camper bought all 251 units, they would own only 17 percent of the campground—not enough to change fees or policies. "Why do you buy something if you have absolutely no control and no say?"

She also questioned why Smith—after deciding to slow down the process—had continued seeking approval from the planning board without updating campers. "It's sort of like he's going behind our backs… It just makes you suspicious, and you have to question that kind of behavior," she said.

Still, she and her now-grown children hope to continue spending their summers at Westward Shores; like many campers, she's adopting a "wait and see" attitude as the campground faces changes and a possible foreclosure. "It's a beautiful campground. We love it there and want it to stay the way it's been," she said. "If it ain't broke don't fix it. Leave it alone, except get better management."

But Hardie argued that a foreclosure would be the worst scenario for longtime Westward Shores campers. He claimed the prospective buyer would more than likely kick all existing campers out, redesign the lots, pave the roads, and offer four new, standardized park models at a higher price and financing rate.

He said Smith, upon viewing the interested party's other property, had refused to sell to this buyer in the past. "It's going to look like a mobile home park… So if people want a real camping experience, they should get behind Charlie," said Hardie.

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