Santa Clara County Limits Misuse of RV Parks

Cover Image from Santa Clara County Recreational Vehicle Parks Study, March 2018

Recreational Vehicle (RV) parks can be an enjoyable experience providing greater comforts than tent camping especially for those who want a more extended stay. However, turning these remote RV parks into permanent housing is a misuse of rural areas. They become high-density housing projects that are only appropriate within city limits.

The State of California, in an effort to preserve housing, passed a law that allows RVs parks to convert to permanent housing. While commendable in the right places, it raises the risk of turning remote RV campgrounds into urban-level developments. Since 2018, Santa Clara County has wrestled with this problem as it has had a long-standing policy that urban development is for cities, not the unincorporated countryside.

With our encouragement, Santa Clara County has acted to limit the misuse of RV park-turned-housing-development to the extent possible under state law. In May, with our support, it finalized the RV park rule changes – an important victory overall. The response to the threat was to prohibit new or expanded private RV parks on unincorporated County land. There was an exception in a few limited areas of the county where such housing would be appropriate, generally near cities and highways and areas designated for “Roadside Services”. All existing RV parks can continue to operate as they have but they cannot expand. These rules do not apply to cities which regulate RV parks within their boundaries.

A Case in Point: Thousand Trails RV Campground

Thousand Trails RV Campground is located in a rural part of southern Santa Clara, southwest of Morgan Hill. Uvas Creek, an important steelhead trout stream, runs along the property, and the campground forms the border between farms and vineyards on one side, and forested hills on the other.

This vacation campsite is a very inappropriate place for permanent housing, far from services, schools, and jobs. Thousand Trails is one of several private RV parks in the County in this situation, and like other RV parks, claims their own policy prohibits long-term stays, but they have the right to change that policy at any point.

Recently, Thousand Trails attempted to expand its campground and turn a neighboring 10 acres of open space along Uvas Creek into intense development. This would destroy the environmental value of that important habitat and increase potential contamination of the watershed.

Aware that the County’s proposed changes would prohibit this expansion, Thousand Trails raced to complete their application before the County made its final approval of the new RV park rules. Like many local governments, the County allows applications deemed complete to be judged by the old rules if the new ones are not yet adopted. This is intended to keep the rules from changing on an applicant.

In this case though, the County did not deem Thousand Trails’ application complete before the new rules were adopted. We had advocated to the County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors that they should not delay adopting the new rules and they didn’t.

Now the owners are disputing the County’s determination of an incomplete application and may ultimately sue the County. We supported the County’s determination of incompleteness and believe that the County’s position will prevail.

People Desperately Need Housing, But It Needs to Be In the Right Place

No one would deny that California in general and the Bay Area in particular face a long-running housing crisis. Yet that housing need is not met by shunting people away from cities, out in the countryside without access to services, health care and the vast majority of jobs.

We support building more housing, particularly affordable housing, within cities and near downtowns and transit centers. Aside from the special case of farmworker housing, affordable housing should be built in urban areas.

Protecting the environment and resolving our housing crisis can and should move forward at the same time.

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