Dyana Kelley, the CEO and president of the California Outdoor Hospitality Association (CalOHA), has been in her role for going on four years this summer, but it has been a whirlwind beginning as she faced the COVID pandemic mere months after taking over the association and is now actively involved in keeping up with legislative affairs — something that never seems to slow down in the Golden State.
She manages to take care of her members — which are spread across a huge state — with a very small team of volunteers and employees.
California in recent years has attracted headlines not only for its COVID response and its governors’ aggressive stance on climate change, race issues and more but also because of its massive wildfires that in 2023 have seemed to slow a bit — fingers crossed it remains that way.
But while all of this has been swirling around, park owners have also had to face very real issues when it comes to residential classifications, environmental issues and even bills that want to change how parks are operated.
To get a better grasp on the challenges facing park owners, Woodall’s Campground Magazine (WCM) recently spoke with Kelley.
An edited transcript of our conversation is below.
WCM: What are some of the key issues you are facing at the moment as it pertains to how parks are classified, how they operate and the housing crisis in California?
Dyana Kelley: In California, there is this perception right now that we need more campsites, not necessarily more parks, but more sites. But when you speak with park owners, they will tell you that there isn’t a need for more parks and that sites are available.
Then we have legislation like the Special Occupancy Parks Act, which is starting to peel off segments of the camping industry and shifting them back to local jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions are beginning to look at parks as affordable housing and maybe even as a solution to the homeless crisis. Legislators are forcing RV parks into full-time affordable housing completely disregarding our travel and tourism segment.
We have a huge housing crisis here in California, people can’t afford to live here. Certainly, in my lifetime, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to buy a house here in California. We have this homeless housing crisis and people have taken to living in RV parks to, in my opinion, excess and park owners have allowed it because in some cases they couldn’t make it throughout the year without those long-term guests coming in.
Legislators aren’t talking to each other either. On one hand, they’re saying, “We need more sites, so let’s build more campgrounds over here and take this business away from RV parks.” On the other side, park owners are saying, “We can’t make it because we don’t have enough reservations to carry us through the year, so we have to take on long-term tenants.” Then you’ve got legislators on the other side saying, “Well, if you’re taking on long-term tenants, then you’re considered a mobile home park and you should give up all of your rights.”
That is where we’re stuck. My prediction is that long-term camping will be pulled away from the parks or that segment will be pulled out of the Special Occupancy Parks Act. It will be moved to its own segment different than an RV park. Then you’re going to have RV parks that, in my opinion, will start moving back to being a mobile home park.
More than 20 years ago this organization wrote the Special Occupancy Parks Act to divide RV parks and campgrounds from mobile home parks. At one point, they were all considered mobile home parks and they all fell under the mobile home park law. We wrote the act to give RV parks and campgrounds their own set of regulations, but the more that this continues, the more I see our chances of hanging on to that special segment of regulations and RV parks getting pushed back as they peel off camping to go into a different segment. That’s what I think is going to happen.
WCM: So, one part of the problem is that there is a perceived lack of short-term sites in both public and private parks, right?
Kelley: Well, that’s the perception. I don’t know if it’s the reality. Part of that perception stems from the state reservation system that isn’t adequate, and people feel that they need to go onto that state system and book five or six weeks in a row, or five or six weeks throughout the summer because they have to book so far in advance that they don’t know which week they’re going to take. They’ll book up five or six weeks throughout a certain number of months, and then they’ll only use one of them. When people go on to register to get a site, they can’t because people have gone on and blocked out all these sites for extended periods. The private parks are saying, “We have sites available. Come and stay with us. We’ve got the room.”
WCM: What are your thoughts on the homelessness crisis and its impact on parks?
Kelley: Somewhere along the way low-income families discovered that they could buy an RV and that they didn’t actually need a place to park it. They take their RV and park it anywhere, typically on a side street somewhere. You can get an old RV that isn’t quite operable or self-contained relatively inexpensively. In a lot of the cities around here, you just park it on the street and you just move it every night. That’s happening all over the place. Unfortunately, it’s also giving RV parks a bad name. These cities don’t want these people on their streets, so they are finding a way to push them back to the RV parks. There is a huge piece of this bill — AB 1472 — that wants to make RV parks the scapegoat for the homeless problem.
WCM: How is this legislation, in simple terms, forcing people who live in RVs into private parks?
Kelley: It’s run by Assemblyman David Alvarez out of San Diego. He was contacted by the mayor of a small town in his district that said tenants of an RV park were being asked to go out every six months and come back in, and they complained. They stated that they didn’t have any place to go when they had to leave the park.
During the 48 hours, they had to leave, their RVs weren’t functioning well enough to keep their food cold, and they lost their food and it was an extreme hardship. That is how the assemblyman got involved and he does not believe it’s an adequate practice for RV parks to have people go out of the park and re-register.
He believes that if somebody wants to live in an RV park, they should be allowed to and not be asked to leave periodically. The problem with AB 1472 is that he’s using a broad brush to lump all the RV parks throughout California into one basket and as we all know, there’s so much diversity in California. We’re a huge state with a lot of different terrain, a lot of different regions and each district is vastly different from one another. This isn’t a small state where there are 60 parks that are all basically the same, they’re hugely different. Each one has its own set of situations and its own dynamics going on.
The intention isn’t for them to live there forever. We have traveling nurses that want to come and stay, and then if they get a permanent job, it doesn’t mean they get to live in the RV park. They need to go and find a place to live. They can’t stay there. The intention wasn’t to allow them to stay there. It was to allow them to stay for a period of time.
We have parks that house frontline workers because we’ve had so many fires out here. There are frontline workers, forestry personnel…etc. There are all kinds of things going on where the intent isn’t for these people to become residents, but this bill forces us to either allow them to be a resident or to kick them out and not allow them to come back.
WCM: In a perfect world, what would you like to see out of this bill?
Kelley: What the law says right now is that if the park has a length of stay limitation. say six months, and someone leaves the park and they want to come back in and re-register again for another six months, because that’s the policy of the park, that they’re allowed to do so. Under this bill, we wouldn’t be able to let them come back in unless we want them to be a permanent resident of the park. We either have to let them be a permanent resident or we have to kick them out, and then we lose the business.
Now all of those line workers that are in the park in Sonoma can stay six months, but if their contracts get extended or if they want to renew that lease, they won’t be able to because the park doesn’t allow permanent residence, but it would allow them to renew their lease.
WCM: So, you want flexibility to some degree, right?
Kelley: The law shouldn’t tell the park owners that they have to allow anyone to be a resident in their park. We don’t want RVers to establish residence and that is part of the law that is already in place. We would rather not see that changed and we want the right to be able to allow people to come back and re-register if they would like to without them automatically turning into a resident.
WCM: Is there any way to avoid this issue on a national scale too with the way things are going?
Kelley: I don’t know. I would like to think so, but I think park owners need to do a better job of maintaining transient occupancy and they shouldn’t be allowing so many people to live in the park.
Maybe they need to set up rules and regulations that say, “No, you can stay for six months, but then after six months you have to go and you can’t come back for a certain period of time.” I think the industry has to decide which way it’s going. Are we going to be travel parks? Are we going to be a campground, a tourism destination, a tourism vehicle or are we going to be low-income housing? I think if you are a park that wants to operate housing, then maybe you should change your designation to be a mobile home park.
Even if you have RVs in it, that’s OK, you can still apply the RV park law, but I think you need to change your designation.
WCM: That of course varies state-by-state.
Kelley: Correct, and for some of them, that isn’t a choice. They need that other long-term business to keep afloat.
In some cases, they’ll have long-term guests stay all winter and then when the summer crowd comes in, the long-term guests have to leave and they have tourists all summer long. Well, without those long-term stays, they can’t make it. Under this bill, they could be forced to allow those people to stay and they might have to stay and become residents.
Now, if you have residents there, you don’t get your summer tourism business. When you think about some of the areas in California where people want to live, the mountains, down by the beach…etc. They would love to have a nice spot down by the beach for $800 a month. I think that the consumers who are looking for housing could use this legislation as a tool to find themselves in a nice spot down on the beach.
WCM: Another unintended consequence of this is that if they become residents, then that can open up a ton of other complications as well, right?
Kelley: That’s part of the problem. If they become full-time residents of the park, we are subject to eviction laws and rent control. Those people that live in the parks don’t pay taxes. They’re not paying into the school districts or the general fund. They’re not paying tenant tourism occupancy taxes. They’re not paying into the system that would allow them the right to go use the courts.
If you go to evict somebody, you have to go to court and we pay our attorneys to go there and fight that, but they don’t typically have to pay anything. We’ve had situations where the school buses are coming into parks and picking up kids for school, but those people aren’t paying into the system. That’s a problem as well.
I wrote an article about RV parks being zoned into extinction. We’ve had at least one county out here that rezoned RV parks and there is now no land in that county that qualifies within the zoning that’s allowed for RV parks. They rezoned it and said “RV parks are now in this zone,” but that zone doesn’t have any available land to build an RV park.
The others that are in the old zoning are considered legal nonconforming and they’re no longer allowed to make any changes to their park, but they can continue operating. If you can’t make changes and you can’t upgrade, your park could fall into disarray as it gets older. Then who’s going to want to go there? Then the city’s going to come in and say, “Well, you’re not doing your upgrades.” Well, I can’t do any upgrades because now I’ve been cast into this legal nonconforming shadow.
UPDATE: In a recent email to CalOHA members, Kelley noted that AB 1472 failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 11. The bill still has life though.
“Senator Laird moved for reconsideration, and it was granted, meaning that Asm Alvarez can bring the bill back in the spring. However, the strong opposition from the committee would indicate a full need to gut and amend before presenting to the committee again. It is likely that the bill will be brought back to the committee in some form and unlikely that Asm will work with the opposition.
However, this is just the beginning of what could be more legislation between RV parks and housing issues. As an industry we need to look to the future and what direction we should take to protect our parks. 20-plus years ago the founders of CalOHA took the initiative to write SOPA. Now it is time to rethink RV parks and where we want to land for the next 20 years.
Please take a moment to thank the Senators, especially if they are in your district, for their support of RV parks and campgrounds throughout California.”
Rick Kessler and Sherman Goldenberg also contributed to this story.