Editor’s note: This column was written by Christine Taylor, a Principal Partner at The Towne Law Firm, P.C. in the firm’s Albany, N.Y., office, who focuses her practice in the areas of Hospitality Law, Business Law, Labor and Employment Law, Real Estate Law, Trusts and Estate Law and Litigation. Park owners can email email@example.com for a chance to have their questions answered in future columns.
As with everything, when licensing a campsite to a camper, you will want to be considerate of local and state laws. Before you know it that long-term guest can become a long-term problem since they have legally become a tenant. These laws vary greatly depending on the state you are located in and typically cannot be contracted around because, as a general rule, you cannot contract for “illegal things.”
Depending on the length of stay and whether the days on-site were consecutive or not, the individual(s) who were once merely recreational campers may become tenants with a more residential classification. This is important because usually tenants are treated differently than transient guests (or campers) from a legal perspective as there are more residential tenant protections. The classification of an occupant can affect policies, such as the eviction notice period (or if you have to evict them at all), whether the campsite fee can be raised annually and by what percentage. Again, each state has a different threshold for when a guest becomes a tenant and what the implications are on the applicable laws.
As an example, states have created various revisions to try to define these long-term stays at campgrounds. In Florida, any guest that resides at the property for more than fourteen (14) days in a six (6) month period or spends more than seven (7) nights consecutively on the property is considered a tenant.
In Oregon, for RV parks, to be considered a “vacation occupant” a person must rent the RV space for vacation purposes only, not as a principal residence; have a principal residence other than the RV park; and not occupy the RV park for more than forty-five (45) days.
In Arizona, the Long-Term Rental Space Act applies additional regulations to those guests renting for more than 180 consecutive days.
Recently, many people have taken to the road and campground owners have desired to increase their rates — which naturally has caused pushback. If the guest is merely a licensee, even if they are long-term, as long as you are within the parameters of your state’s length-of-stay guidelines, you can raise the rates without legal issues. Granted, as with most things there is the public relations issue where this might cause a lot of current customers to be disgruntled.
Also, as with anything, nothing will stop these long-term guests from trying to stop your increase. It’s not uncommon to see customers file Attorney General Complaints, small claims lawsuits and even class actions over the raising of seasonal/long-term guest rates. Generally, again with the caveat that they must still be classified as merely a licensee by way of a signed contract, you can make these lawsuits and complaints go away very quickly by explaining the relationship as merely recreational and not housing, thus the housing rules would be inapplicable.
But what if they are now considered tenants legally? What are your parameters then? As soon as you tip-toe into tenancy you may be subject to rate increase caps or stringent notice issues. For example, in New York, if you are considered a mobile home park, then you generally cannot raise the rate more than 3% above the current rent. In Oregon, you are capped at around 14% a year with legislation currently on the table to drop that cap. Do note, in some states, there is an exception if the park owner experienced increases in operating expenses, property taxes on the park or costs from capital improvements in the park.
In some states, the length of stay does not trigger rent increase caps, but instead notice parameters and language requirements for rental agreements and with these satisfied, the park owner would be allowed to raise the rent.
So, what should park owners do? Be very careful as to your classification and verify your policies, procedures and paperwork. Perhaps campground owners might reconsider their business models. Year-round parks might choose to close for a month to show that in no terms could the campground be considered the residence of a guest. Perhaps they do away with long-term guests or allow no one to stay on the site for more than 28 days consecutively.
Campground owners must determine their business models and their goals, and then adjust their operations to match the same. So, if the goal is to be able to raise their prices without restriction, then in some states they would need to limit the stays of their guests.
As with anything, where there are more participants and more money to be had, there will always be more litigation, testing out and redefining the parameters of what a business owner is actually allowed to do with their business.