CNCounty News

Colorado county’s new camping ordinance opens doors for private landowners

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Key Takeaways

The blissful simplicity of a tent can become remarkably complex when county land use codes come into the picture.

When Denverites head out of town on weekends to explore the Rocky Mountains, they hit Chaffee County, Colo. within a few hours. Beyond there, crowded campsites on federal and state land are pushing people farther off the beaten path and discouraging newcomers who aren’t reserving their sites the day applications open. But not all of these travelers are seasoned campers, and Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker saw the potential for mishap, but also the opportunity to strengthen his rural community.

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Read Chaffee County, Colo.'s ordinance

Read Hipcamp's Chaffee County case study 

“Let’s be honest, there are some people who don’t belong in the backcountry yet,” he said. “They’re not ready for it, they may not even know if they’re capable of sleeping in a tent, they might find out one night is more than they can handle. It’s better for them to find out when they’re close to services and close to town than to be out somewhere on the Colorado Trail, seven miles from the nearest road or anything like that.”

The alternative — camping on private land —  involved a yearlong process with multiple meetings with the county planning commission and Board of Commissioners and could cost $15,000 for a conditional use permit.

“This is a very broad problem that I see consistently across counties in the U.S.,” said Mica Rosenoer, government relations manager for outdoor marketplace Hipcamp, which supplements public land access, allows users to reserve camping space. She is also a Chaffee County Housing Authority Board member.

“Most land use codes have very old commercial campground regulations meant for high density RV parks or they have very new short-term rental permit application processes, and those usually require a single family home on the property.

Chaffee County passed a new ordinance tailored to low-impact camping on private property in October 2022, streamlining the process to an online form, a single meeting with a county staffer and a $500-$1,500 permit. Instead of requiring bathrooms and electric hookups onsite, the new ordinance allows for primitive camping. The ordinance took effect in February 2023.

Legislation passed last year in Maryland changed the definition of agritourism to include camping and incidental outdoor stays.

 Baker led the effort to revise the county’s land use code along with Hipcamp. Hipcamp users reserve campsites, with a portion of the booking fee going to the landowner offering including tents, RVs, vans, yurts, domes or travel trailers. Some landowners include equipment in the rental.

“We want to support landowners who are working ranchers or farmers or have a piece of property that is going relatively unused and developing a secondary use to some of their properties so they can build out sustainable revenue, be able to pay their property taxes and support tourism in a more sustainable way in their community,” Rosenoer said.

During a webinar held by the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals, Baker said the ordinance was helping Chaffee County hew close to what so many local bumper stickers preached: Keeping the towns ‘town’ and keeping the country ‘country.’

“I think that’s the challenge that most carriers in the rural West have faced,” he said.

Increasingly, landowners are also facing challenges of rising costs as they tend to their properties, and for many, allowing camping could fund that.

“This is another [revenue] stream, not a hugely lucrative stream, but enough to make a significant difference in a lot of people’s lives that helps augment their income so it helps us maintain the rural character of the rural part of the county and helps our producers maintain the rural character of the agricultural community,” Baker said.

The Chaffee County Planning Department identified 250 farms and ranches that are eligible for this kind of use. Half of those landowners opening two campsites, Rosenoer said, could yield nearly $4 million for local businesses and $100,000 in county tax revenue if the county adopted a transient occupancy tax.

For Baker, it’s a way locals can help communicate their values to visitors and bridge a cultural gap to make sure rural Colorado is not just Denver’s weekend playground.

“It seems that we’re losing our connection with our agricultural heritage — the Jeffersonian concept of knowing where your food comes from, knowing how it’s produced, knowing what people go through to produce it, all those values that used to be pretty commonplace,” he said. “[Private property camping] gives families and others an opportunity to stay on a working ranch and for a kid to go out and see tadpoles in a creek, or a pond, or even an irrigation ditch, or to look at pond water under a microscope or to have some encounters with nature.

“I think there’s still that connectivity, it’s part of the overall Western heritage, the Western lifestyle of being outdoors… they still want to share it with people, they want to share that heritage and that point of view with people so they can try to continue it and foster it onward.”

The ordinance requires major site reviews if the property is located in an undisturbed high or highest quality habitat, is in an identified wildlife migration corridor or is visible from or located within 300 hundred yards of a scenic and historic byway. The ordinance limits landowners to 10 campsites, at a minimum size of 10 acres, and requires campsites to have a caretaker within 60 miles. Different minimum campsite sizes for tents or RVs or vans limit fire risk. Quiet hours run between 10 p.m. - 7 a.m. and camping is limited during wildlife habitat periods.

“We didn’t have a lot of concern because of this being, by definition, rural in nature, from neighbors who thought they might be adversely impacted by people on adjacent properties,” Baker said. “Part of it is because you know the numbers are going to be somewhat self-limiting, they’re not going to be a huge campground, it’s not going to be like a Burning Man or everything like that sort of music festival, it would be fairly small numbers of people just on an opportunistic basis that way.”

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