Trailer owners pin hopes on compromise
McCOOK, Neb. — Trailer home owners at Red Willow Lake north of McCook can envision a lake environment with more locations for short-term RV and camper parking, the addition of small cabin rentals, additional public access areas — all without forcing trailer owners to remove their permanent trailer homes.
Each amenity would encourage and enhance public usage at the lake and benefit the existing concessionaire, according to representatives of the owners of 64 trailer homes and recreational vehicles on the seven-acre park that’s grown up on the northeast shore of the Hugh Butler Lake (“Red Willow”) since dam construction started in July 1960.
A trailer owners’ association is hoping that all involved — the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Nebraska’s congressional delegation — can work together on policy changes that would not force trailer owners to move their trailers off rented lots by an April 30, 2020, deadline. That’s when a master agreement detailing Game and Parks’ management of the lake for the Bureau expires. Three association representatives — each a trailer owner at Red Willow lake — testified before the Nebraska Legislature Natural Resources Committee in Lincoln on Feb. 14. On April 11, legislators adopted “LR 266,” calling for the federal government, Game and Parks and Nebraska’s congressional delegation (Congressman Adrian Smith and Senators Deb Fischer and Ben Sass) to come up with a solution that will allow trailers owners to keep their trailers on their lake lots.
Kent Confer, Sam O’Toole and Al Dunworth, each of whom owns a trailer at Red Willow, can see other, more beneficial actions and options than forcing trailers owners to remove their trailers.
O’Toole said that there are other areas around the lake — 4,320 acres of land around the 1,628-acre lake — that the Bureau and/or Game and Parks could develop with new hard-surface camper parking areas or with short-term rental summer cabins.
Rental payments from these options would be in addition to the permanent trailer rentals, he said. “There is actually better land than the trailer park location (which is terraced) to build slabs or cabins on,” O’Toole said.
Each trailer lot at Red Willow Lake is charged $1,200 a year. With 57 trailers and 7 RV lots, that’s a substantial amount of rent each year paid to the concessionaire “Lighthouse Marina,” which manages the trailer park for Game and Parks.
O’Toole said that state-managed RV areas that are available now are filled up only on busy summer holidays. “There’s never been a time that someone hasn’t been able to rent a spot, except maybe a busy holiday, and there are always additional RV areas available from the concessionaire,” he said.
“Slab rentals won’t replicate our trailer lot rental,” Dunworth said. “The math just doesn’t add up. At a time when both state and federal budget revenues are not covering expenditures, it makes no sense at all to amputate a self-sustaining program that is a primary source of income.”
Confer said that when the lake is low and during extreme droughts, public use of the lake is down and the concessionaire relies heavily on the trailer rent.
The three men call the attempt to force the trailers off of government land at Red Willow federal overreach.
O’Toole said that other Reclamation efforts to eliminate “private exclusive use” of government-owned land and lakes have not ended well. He said 1,300 trailer owners and five of seven marina/resort owners were forced off Lake Berryessa in Napa County, Calif., in 2009, with Reclamation’s promise to rebuild resorts to increase public use of and access to the land and lake owned by the federal government.
The Berryessa project failed, and the number of visitors has plummeted.
“The Bureau wanted more public use, but the number of visitors is less than half of what it was when the marinas were in full operation,” O’Toole said. “Berryessa was self-sustaining. The Bureau tore much of it down and it hasn’t been rebuilt. It’s devastated the economy.” Confer said Berryessa was the start of the Bureau’s attempt to eliminate “private exclusive use” of federally-owned property and its overreach on federal land around lakes. “Berryessa shows that when this fails, it fails badly,” he said.
There has been an instance in which the Bureau wanted trailers off federal property, but it worked out an agreement and trailer owners on Lake Tschida in North Dakota have been allowed to keep their trailers.
After a flood in 2009, the Bureau decided that some of the trailers along Lake Tschida inside the flood pool would have to be removed by 2021, and only recreational vehicles would be allowed on the lake’s leased lots.
Property owners who had made investments and improvements over the years — with the knowledge and consent of the Bureau — asked their senators to intervene.
Legislation introduced by North Dakota Senator John Hoeven in 2016 would allow Lake Tschida property owners to retain ownership of their homes and trailers as long as they’re anchored properly to ensure dam safety.
(The Lake Tschida reprieve was part of a larger federal water bill, the “Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation” act that Pres. Barack Obama signed on Dec. 19, 2016. The bill was labeled “comprehensive legislation to address the needs of America’s harbors, dams, flood protection and other water resources and infrastructure critical to the nation’s economic growth, health and competitiveness.”)
As bad as the Lake Berryessa situation sounds, Red Willow Lake trailer owners don’t want that to happen to them, the concessionaire and the lake.
Properties on Lake Berryessa had been self-sustaining. Trailers and the concessionaire on Red Willow Lake are self-sustaining. “It’s silly to enforce the federal government’s ‘exclusive use’ laws that don’t apply here,” Dunworth said.
As good as the Lake Tschida situation sounds, Red Willow Lake trailer owners would like the Bureau to consider the same type of reprieve at Red Willow Lake. If the Bureau can make an exception to its enforcement to eliminate exclusive use of federal property for Lake Tschida property owners, it’s possible to allow the same consideration for Red Willow Lake trailer home owners.
The trailer owners and concessionaire at Red Willow have always complied with what Game and Parks has asked them to do, Confer said. “Electrical codes and upgrades, water lines and safety practices are up to standard. We’re inspected annually by Game and Parks and the Bureau, and we’ll do more if we have to.”
The three men point out that the trailer area isn’t exclusively for the use of the trailer owners. The area has playgrounds, access to the lake and beaches available to the general public.
The marina is often the venue for weddings, reunions, parties and sand volleyball, as well as band concerts during most summer weekends that are free to the public to attend, sponsored by Lighthouse Marina.
“We keep the trailer park area and the lake clean,” Kent said. “Along with Game and Parks, we’re responsible caretakers of the trailer area and lake.”
See related story on the Lighthouse Marina, here.