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Legal aid shines light on powerless campers’ struggle



Last modified: Sunday, May 03, 2015
A court made an emergency ruling to restore electricity to long-term campers at a foreclosed Epsom campground yesterday.

The injunction came after the Circle 9 Ranch Campground went dark Tuesday, despite its continued occupancy by about 17 families who have few or no other living arrangements available.

The lights were back on last night, but Ada May Brown, a camper familiar with the situation, said she feared the ruling might only be temporary.

“There could possibly be a reverse injunction tomorrow,” she said. “Nobody’s out of the woods yet.”

Brown said a group of campers met with an attorney from New Hampshire Legal Assistance yesterday and put the process in motion, but it was far from over.

The park was sold at a foreclosure auction in October, but the sale fell through. Since then, about 17 families who say they have few or no other options have been living there – paying no rent or electric bills – and wondering what’s in store for the future of their home.

Elliott Berry, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said yesterday before the injunction was granted that the state’s courts have set a precedent showing it’s illegal to kill the power on tenants in the situation of the Circle 9 campers.

Berry said the campers, in legalese, are called “tenants of sufferance.”

“They’re a step up from a trespasser, but, again, the court couldn’t be clearer that the property owners cannot use self-help to evict tenants of sufferance,” he said. Self-help “means not using any legal process to get rid of them,” such as shutting down their utilities, he said.

Berry was confident in the case behind the injunction.

“There’s a combination of Supreme Court decisions that make me highly optimistic,” Berry said.

Housing assistance groups have been meeting with the campers to explore different avenues by which they might secure permanent housing. Though the camping season is set to reopen soon, many Circle 9 campers have pets and old trailers that can complicate the process of finding a new home.

A variety of families live at the campground, some because they prefer the rustic living but most because they say they have no other option.

Rick Panzieri, who wears animal skins and a Davy Crockett-style cap, built a bona fide log cabin off of his trailer and said he’s been allowed by the previous owner to live at the park since 2006, despite the campground agreeing with the town that it wouldn’t be a permanent residence. He has said he won’t leave without a fight.

Brown, on the other hand, represents a group for whom the campground is a last resort. She moved back to New Hampshire after her longtime home in the South was foreclosed on and found herself moving her Safari Serengeti RV to the park in November with no other options. She said she’s grateful for the groups looking to assist campers.

“I have great hope something positive will come of this,” she said.

Norm Gentry, the owner before U.S. Bank National Association took over after the foreclosure, owned the camp since 2002, until he amassed more than $110,000 in back property taxes.

Selectman Chris Bowes and police Chief Wayne Preve said the town is mostly staying out of the situation, leaving it to the bank and the campers themselves. Kim Butler, an attorney for the bank, didn’t respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Before the power was cut, Bowes said, several campers were using electric space heaters in their trailers, while the bank footed the bill for electricity.

“My understanding is the bank is looking at roughly a $5,000-a-month bill for their electric in the campground,” he said.

When Bowes visited the campground this week, he was nonplussed when a camper told him he hadn’t been paying any rent and the electricity was “free.”

“I think the town’s involvement at this point is very limited,” he said. “I’m not sure where the bank is going with this – my feeling is if they’re cutting the power, there may be other things coming.”

The power was cut locally, site by site, by the camp manager at the request of the bank, campers said. Those who attempted to flip the switch back on later found their power cut again, this time with a padlock preventing their access, they said.

Preve said the police responded to the campground Wednesday night and took a report that the manager’s padlock had been cut and replaced with a different one. Preve said the power was restored to campers briefly and it’s likely – but difficult to prove – that a camper cut the lock, restored the power and put his own lock on.

“We told the manager he could cut it and put his own lock on and we took the report that it happened,” Preve said. “It’d be kind of difficult to prove who did it.”

Other than that incident, Preve said, there haven’t been problems at the campground over the past few months, though the police took a report after a dispute at the campground last night.



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)