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Explosion of RV campgrounds stirs controversy in Wisconsin

Cabin owners and many residents in Burnett and Washburn counties have fought vigorously over the last two years to stop the growth of these campgrounds.

SPOONER, Wis. — An explosion of RV campgrounds during the pandemic has turned lake country in western Wisconsin into ground zero in a growing turf war over lake property.

Cabin owners and many residents in Burnett and Washburn counties have fought vigorously over the last two years to stop the growth of these campgrounds.

The most notable complaints cite environmental impact, population overgrowth, and disturbing the peace they bought into when they built their cabins there.

Campground developers say they are breaking no laws and fulfilling the growing demand for RV camping.

“This is their chance to get out and enjoy this nature, enjoy this wildlife and enjoy the lakes that Wisconsin owns,” said Steve Austin, owner of North Camp Properties. “It's the 'my lake' mentality. The 'I was here first' I guess.”

Austin has five active campgrounds in Burnett County with two more scheduled for development in the area.

His Webb Lake Resort has 110 lots carved into the woods filled with 400 square foot park model RVs, many of which are accompanied by ATVs and boats. Some campers stay the weekend; others stay the whole season, which costs about $4,000 plus Wisconsin sales tax.

“[Opponents] bring up crime. They bring up the transient nature, and none of that is true. We’ve got reports from the sheriff’s office, and they never come to the campgrounds. Not cause they won’t, but because they don’t have to,” said Austin.

The latest controversy is on Spooner Lake in Washburn County.

Austin bought 500 acres on the northeast portion of the lake and has been approved to turn it into a 200 site RV campground.

“The biggest argument, it just doesn't belong here,” said Pat Inman, a cabin owner adjacent to the proposed campground and a member of the Preserve Spooner Lake group fighting the development.

She says the lake has 169 homes on its shores. The 200-site campground would more than double the population on the lake, with none of the campers paying property taxes to support local infrastructure and services.

“We are increasing, doubling our population, putting pressure on the infrastructure and services and having no money to support the services that are needed for that,” said Inman.

Campsite Boom

In 2015, Burnett County had 900 total campsites.

Since then, the county has approved 772 more, an 86 percent increase in 7 years, according to county data.

That does not include the nearly 947 additional campsite proposals denied or withdrawn in the same time.

It's an issue more and more towns have had to face since the great camping boom of the pandemic.

Two years ago, North Camp Properties bought a resort in Danbury and intended to expand it for RVs. But cabin owners on the Minerva Chain of lakes were so opposed to it they teamed up and bought the land back for $1.5 million dollars.

“The fact that you call it a campground doesn't make it a campground,” said Jeanne Bruce, a Washburn County Board supervisor.

She too opposes the campground on Spooner Lake. She and others against campground expansions feel state and local zoning laws on what defines a campground these days are outdated.

“You wouldn't allow 200 houses to be built on that site. You wouldn't allow a trailer park to be put on that site. So therefore, why is it ok for 200 RVs?” said Bruce.

Nonetheless, Austin's campground received approval from the county zoning board and also survived a new appeal from Preserve Spooner Lake last weekend. He hopes to break ground this year.

“Certainly they are entitled to their opinion, and this property was for sale for quite some time. You could have bought it. You know? There is still a little capitalism left in this world,” said Austin.

Others who live on Spooner have vowed to take the issue to the district court and further should they have to.

“We will continue to fight,” said Inman.

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