SLO County makes non-public rural tenting and RV parking prime priorities | Information | San Luis Obispo

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  • FILE PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON

  • NEW AGRI-TOURISM San Luis Obispo County is trying to take control of a burgeoning sector of its tourism industry: private campgrounds on local ranches, farms and wineries.

San Luis Obispo County planning officials say not a single county in California has enacted an ordinance to address the rise in private rural campgrounds and overnight parking popularized by apps like Hipcamp and Harvest Host.

But on Oct. 4, the SLO County Board of Supervisors directed its employees to do just that — and to do it soon.

“I think it’s time to move forward with the rural camping initiative,” District 1 Supervisor John Peschong said during a discussion of priorities for the planning and construction department.

SLO county supervisors said they consider the development of the regulations urgent due to growing interest from local landowners and conflicts arising from the county’s “outdated” policies.

Hipcamp, a platform similar to Airbnb, allows rural property owners to recruit and book visitors who want to camp, park or otherwise stay on their land. Harvest Host is similar in nature but focuses on RV stays. Both are enjoying growing popularity across the country.

“The trend is there,” said Debbie Arnold, 5th Ward supervisor. “It would be time to update our Country Camping Ordinance to accommodate these new concepts.”

The discussion came to the fore on Oct. 4 after county officials downgraded the rural camping ordinance to a “Tier II” priority during the committee’s annual update on planning priorities.

County officials previously warned that raising it to a Level I priority would come with a request for significantly more resources as the planning and construction department struggles with vacancies and high turnover.

But Peschong stressed that the issue is too important to put off. He asked staff to come up with a work plan in December to fund and complete the regulation.

“I know this will strain the system,” said Peschong, “[but] it’s important to the community I represent. It is important for the families who have used this to supplement the income of their property. I think it can be done safely.”

Tier I planning projects that district officials submitted Oct. 4 included guidelines for additional housing units and farmworker housing, the Dana Reserve housing project, and the completion of the Los Osos Habitat Conservation Plan and various community plans.

“I would recommend that the planning department decides – if the camping ordinance incurs exorbitant costs – which ones [other Tier I] Programs they pause,” Peschong said.

Ahead of the meeting, stakeholders from across the spectrum of the rural camping debate wrote to the county what they would like to see. Several also spoke at the meeting.

Many camp hosts have argued that the current ordinance is too restrictive and onerous, and has led to bitter and costly battles between property owners and county code enforcement. Neighbors, on the other hand, complain that hip camps are often incompatible with neighborhoods, affecting their safety and quality of life.

Dan Penkauskas, a Creston resident, urged regulators not to relax standards for private camping. He said he and his neighbors are having trouble with a hip camp just 30 feet from a property line.

“He has five big Airstream trailers. They are all currently breaking the law,” Penkauskas said. “We’d like to see the existing setbacks, the existing density, because those are the things that are protecting our existing communities today.”

Megan Judge, a Los Osos farm owner and Hipcamp host, countered by asking regulators for more sensible regulations on private camping. She argued that Hipcamps bring much-needed additional income to local families and fit well with SLO County’s agritourism focus.

“Farming and community are at the core of Hipcamp,” Judge said, “allowing non-rural and urban visitors to connect with the farmers and ranchers, helping them support raising their families and giving back to the community.”

Wardens differentiated between Hipcamp and Harvest Host, saying that a Harvest Host-specific ordinance could be created without much effort. Harvest Host specializes in free overnight RV parking at locations like a winery.

“I think the Harvest Host problem can be solved very quickly and very easily,” said 2nd Precinct Supervisor Bruce Gibson, “if we’re talking about a locked RV that parks for a night for free with no hookups.”

But Gibson and others noted that the camping ordinance would be more involved because it raises sensitive issues related to fire safety and community compatibility.

“As we have heard,” Gibson said, “the various issues involved will be significant.” Δ