New tiny house campground OK’d: Neighbors protest disruption; zoning board sees positives

VAN BUREN TWP. — A nationwide “outdoor hospitality company” wants to build a new, 45-unit campground in Brown County where people from all over the Midwest could come to enjoy the serene landscape, rejuvenate and find more balance in their lives.

Guests would be able to stay in tiny house-like units that are a cross between a cabin and an RV, each surrounded by forest so that guests can enjoy a quiet, private, short-term stay in nature.

The company developing it would pay 10 years of back taxes for the portion of the acreage that they’d take out of the classified forest designation. They’d also pay to pave and maintain the two county roads that guests and staff would use to get to the campground: portions of Poplar Grove and Green Acres roads.

What’s not to like?

Potential noise, increased wildfire risk, contamination concerns from septic drainage and trash, trespassers, changes in property value, increased traffic, and extra pressure on the all-volunteer fire department that serves the area were some of the reasons neighbors came up with.

Eight neighbors spoke against the plan at the June 23 BZA meeting, waiting for two hours to discuss it, as it was the last item on the agenda of a meeting that lasted four hours. One other couple sent in a letter of opposition.

No other audience members but the petitioners spoke in favor of it.

Stephen Maulden and Phil Gambrell pitched the request on behalf of Getaway House Inc. The group was seeking a special exception from the BZA to operate a travel trailer park. They didn’t need a zoning change, as travel trailer parks are allowed in the forest reserve (FR) zoning the land has, but they can only happen if the BZA grants a special exception.

Getaway House site plan
The site plan for Gateway House outpost in Van Buren Township. Submitted

Getaway House Inc. operates 15 “mobile micro-cabin RV campgrounds,” which they call “outposts,” across the country, many of them along the East Coast.

The company is under contract to purchase about 250 acres between Poplar Grove Road and Green Acres Road which is owned now by Land of Indiana, a logging company. The acreage used to belong to the White Tail Conservation Club until 2018, according to the information packet provided to the zoning board.

The land already has gravel logging roads on it, which the petitioners will improve to make the road through the campground. Lodging units will be built offsite and hauled in.

Each unit will have water, electricity and septic disposal. Two-person, four-person and accessible units will be built, each with a sleeping space, a walk-in shower, toilet, mini fridge, two-burner electric stovetop, kitchen sink, seating area and land-line phone. Units range in size from 142 to 176 square feet.

Each also will have an outdoor pad with Adirondack chairs, a picnic table, a U.S. Forest Service-approved fire ring and firewood provided.

No tents or guest RVs will be allowed at the campground; the only lodging will be these units. Bookings will have to be done in advance through the website with no walk-ins allowed, the company-provided paperwork says.

A residence for a full-time manager will be built, as well as an office and facilities for maintenance staff. These might all be in one building, the petitioners told the BZA.

Trails also will be built on the property to discourage guests from wandering, they said. Fencing will not be put up between the campground and adjoining land. All trails, roads and units will be set back at least 100 feet from the adjoining property lines to create a noise and visual barrier. No guns and no hunting will be allowed at the property.

Wastewater will be routed to a centralized treatment area, which Gambrell said would be twice the size they’d need just in case a problem happened and they’d have to use a backup.

The company also will need to get water and electric service installed on the property.

Part of the land is in a wildlife habitat area designated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, but Gambrell said they’re working with the DNR on that and it wasn’t anticipated to be an impediment to their plans.

It’s estimated that the development will create two or three full-time jobs and about 15 part-time jobs in housekeeing. Guests also would pay sales tax and innkeepers tax, Maulden said.

He estimated that introductory pricing would be around $89-$99 per night with regular pricing ranging from $129-$299 per night.

Guest access will be from Green Acres and staff-only access will be from Poplar Grove.

Here is a copy of the presentation from the June 23 BZA meeting: [embeddoc url=”” download=”all”]

Reaction and reasoning

Neighbors who live or own property on both roads filled the socially-distanced meeting room to share their concerns.

Many of them expressed a desire to be left alone, which is part of the reason they live where they live.

Brad Lovins lives on Green Acres Road and said that he’s maintained it for 20 years. It’s a county road, but not maintained by the county. He said the road wasn’t adequate for all the expected guests to use it. He also questioned whether the easement over his dad’s property which was showing on the development’s plans actually existed. According to a plat map, it did.

Gambrell said that the company would widen and pave Green Acres to the county’s standard of 18 feet wide, and also would do snow removal and maintenance, including filling potholes. Neighbors then expressed concern that their land would be taken if the road wasn’t that wide in places.

Lovins is also on the Southern Brown Fire Department which serves Van Buren Township. He raised alarm about all these campfires and that the developers weren’t proposing to financially support the fire department, which is all-volunteer.

Pat and Amy Caudill, property owners on Poplar Grove for four years, told the BZA that this development would ruin their retirement dream. Amy Caudill said it would be a threat to their safety and privacy with “vagrant travelers with no vested interest in the community” constantly coming and going.

Pat Caudill’s tree stand is less than 75 feet from this property line, and he asked what would happen if he shot a deer that wandered over the property line into the campground and then bled out and died in front of cityfolk campers. Campers are probably going to hear a lot of shooting during hunting season, “and if I was a customer I’d be scared crapless,” he said. “It’s just not a good fit.”

Many of the existing outposts are in rural areas. The petitioners said they chose Brown County because they were looking for a place within a two-hour drive of Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville, and they learned that Brown County is already popular with outdoor enthusiasts.

Kathy Mann said it felt like this was being rushed through. She’s the executor for her parents’ estate which borders this land and is responsible for ensuring it retains its value. It’s up for sale. She and several other speakers were concerned about the campground eventually becoming something else, like a mobile home park, without any additional permissions.

Board members explained that the development couldn’t change to somethng that isn’t listed on the approval, and they couldn’t put in more lodging units than the 45 they were requesting without coming back to the board first.

Mann choked back tears. “My dad loved this property. It was his life,” she said. “… I hate to see it be turned into something totally different. They loved it because it felt like there was no one around, and it never will be like that again.”

Neighbor Jill Beck was concerned that people in the area would move out, taking kids out of the school system, because the character of the area would change.

BZA President John Dillberger said he thinks it will do the opposite.

The BZA voted 5-0 in favor of granting the special exception and allowing the Getaway House Inc. to operate.

“I can’t imagine a way that you could bring people into Brown County to experience it for a day or for a week in a way that would have less impact than this, and the sort of people that would be attracted to this and the sort of people that they intend to attract to this are the kind of people that I would love to come into Brown County and experience it,” Dillberger said.

“Because, with any luck, one or two of them would decide they might want to come here and live. They might want to come here and bring their children into our school system. They might want to come here and open up a business. They might want to come here and buy property.

“And I understand that this is a change to that area. … But part of what I’m supposed to be doing up here is balancing the desire for the county to attract businesses and to attract some new residents, so we don’t keep losing population, against the impact on the people who would be directly affected. And, my opinion, balance suggests that I ought to approve this.”

BZA member Buzz King said that in two years, he predicts all the neighbors will agree with him that it’s going to be a good thing and there’s nothing to worry about.

The audience responded with sarcastic laughs.

“You killed our dream,” Pat Caudill told the BZA as he walked out after the vote. “… You talk about bringing people into Brown County, now you’re losing one who’s invested so much. And it’s going to be a nightmare.”

Nicole Farin, with the public relations team at Gateway, said on Monday, June 28 that Gateway expects “to have a better sense of timing on closing (on the property) and construction by the end of August.”

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Company website: