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In-town camping provides options, lays framework

August 2, 2017 GMT

While the municipal campground set up behind the Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center has not been as widely used as expected, it has provided nine people with a safe, quiet and, most importantly, convenient place to live for the summer.

“It’s not the Hilton,” said LaDee Johnson, a wastewater collector for the town of Jackson. “But it was getting old moving around from campsite to campsite all the time. I think it’s good for the town to give up a little space for the people who live here and who make the wheels turn.”

The campground was set up to allow businesses to purchase parking permits for their employees, but all nine of the people camped behind the Rec Center are town and county employees.

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For Johnson camping was a way to save money for a home, which he hopes to move into this winter. Being able to camp in town dramatically cut down on his commute — especially when he was on call.

“As a tier-one employee they like me to be close,” he said. “Commuting was rough. This is just very convenient, which is a big plus.”

Even without running water or electrical connections, Johnson said he is comfortable living in his camper.

“It’s pretty good,” he said. “Water and electricity would be a luxury. I usually leave on the weekends, and I’ll go dump and fill up with water. I have a few batteries to keep the lights on.”

For Emily Rutz, a counselor at Camp Jackson, the choice to live in the municipal campground was not her first, but it did provide her with an affordable option to stay in Jackson for the summer.

“My boyfriend and I just couldn’t find an affordable place to stay,” she said. “We bounced around for about two months, sleeping on friends’ couches and camping. For a little bit there we thought we might need to go home [to Vermont]. This was our savior. We know quite a few people up in Curtis Canyon, and this is definitely better than camping up there.”

Not only do Rutz and her boyfriend have access to showers and bathrooms at the Rec Center, they also work there, so they are just minutes away from their jobs.

With six Parks and Rec employees living at the municipal campground, Rutz and her coworkers are able to maintain some level of community, setting up lounge chairs after work to hang out and enjoy the evening Jackson sun on their “porch.”

Though Rutz is headed back to Boston to complete her master’s in speech pathology, she said house-hunting in Jackson only to end up living in a parking lot for the summer did not discourage her from returning to Jackson.

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“I’m surprised how few people have taken advantage of the campground,” she said. “It’s super convenient, and it has actually made me get outside more. We’re having a blast. We love it here in Jackson. We’ll definitely be back.”

Pilot program

Approved by the Town Council in May as a pilot program to test the appetite of employees for an in-town campground, councilors designated 20 parking spaces for camping. Thus far, however, 10 have been stripped due to a lack of interest.

According to Roxanne Robinson, assistant town manager, the town received two calls from local businesses interested in purchasing permits, but they never ended up submitting applications.

Part of the problem is the cost. From June 16 to June 30 a parking permit was $225 a space. For August and July, $465 for a spot each month. From Sept. 1 to Sept. 4 a space will cost $60.

With only town and county employees in the campground, many of the campers are not forced to pay for their permit because their individual departments have picked up the tab. If they had to, Johnson and Rutz said they would have camped somewhere else.

“The whole point,” Rutz said, “was to save money.”

Rules have been loosened

To ensure campers respected the space the town initially enacted strict rules that allowed permitted users to park their vehicles only from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and prohibited tents, disconnected trailers, open fires, awnings, pets, smoking and self-powered generators. Additionally all activities, including sleeping, sitting, cooking, washing and eating, were required to be contained within a vehicle.

With only nine residents the town and Parks and Rec loosened some of the rules, allowing disconnected trailers to be parked all day and permitting residents to set up chairs outside and to have small pets.

“We haven’t had any problems or complaints so far,” Robinson said. “Everything’s running pretty smoothly.”

The campground opened June 21, after the town quickly amended ordinances prohibiting overnight parking. Adjacent to Davey Jackson Elementary School, the municipal campground will close Sept. 4, just before the school year begins.

The Town Council said that after the campground is closed for winter it will review the program and debate if the town should continue funding a municipal campground, and whether it should be expanded and given a more permanent location, possibly just outside of town in the county.

“I’d like to continue this conversation with our partners at the county,” Councilor Jim Stanford said when the campground was approved in May. “As we plan and invest resources we’re going to need the cooperation of the county as we look we look to do this on a bigger scale. This is a starting point, and hopefully it can inform that process.”