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Rock ‘n’ Birch Campground set to close in two weeks, but some tenants aren’t ready 

  • Dana Colburn Jr. says he’€™s not ready to move from the RockNBirch Campground in Henniker quite yet as the deadling approaches at the end of the month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Diane Perron has been praying for an answer about having to leave the RockNBirch campground in Henniker by the end of the month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dana Colburn Jr. says he’€™s not ready to move from the RockNBirch Campground in Henniker quite yet as the deadling approaches. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dana Colburn Jr. says he’€™s not ready to move from the RockNBirch Campground in Henniker quite yet as the deadling approaches at the end of the month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Diane Perron has been praying for an answer about having to leave the RockNBirch campground in Henniker by the end of the month. She did get wood for the winter though. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jeff Amyote (left) and Dana Colburn Jr. are no€™t sure what they are going to do now that the Rock ‘n’ Birch Campground will be closing at the end of the month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, October 14, 2017

Seven years ago, Dana Colburn Jr. was in a financial tight spot. He was looking for a place to live, and he said the town of Henniker welfare office suggested Rock ‘n’ Birch Campground.

“They told us, ‘There’s a cheap place over there. Go and see the owner, Ray, he’ll put you up,’ ” Colburn remembered. “A lot of people who needed it were sent here by the town.”

Over time, Colburn built a life at Rock ‘n’ Birch – he made relationships with neighbors, raised a family and planted a sprawling vegetable garden.

Now, Henniker officials are telling Rock ‘n’ Birch tenants they need to leave. By the end of the month, Colburn – along with several other residents who call Rock ‘n’ Birch home – will have to find a new place to live.

The town has argued that Rock ‘n’ Birch is only zoned as a recreational campground, and not intended for year-round use, an argument the campground’s owner, Ray Panetta, has fought for years. But in May 2016, Panetta settled with the town and agreed to close the campground from November to April 30. Tenants learned of the agreement in December of last year, and now the deadline is two weeks away.

The problem is, many of those who live at Rock ‘n’ Birch full-time can’t afford to live anywhere else and have nowhere to go. Many are living on social security, disability or other benefits.

Further, those who do use the campground recreationally in the winter are left without the vacation-getaway they invested in and have enjoyed for years.

People like Colburn feel like they’re being kicked out of their homes, and rejected by the town they live in.

“Now they’ve got us all collected in one spot, they’re going like this,” he said, moving his hand across his body in a sweeping motion. “They’re wiping us out.”

Home

Colburn, 51, moved to Rock ‘n’ Birch with his then-wife around 2010. He said the couple stayed on the campground almost all winter that first year.

Then, even after his marriage ended, his step-daughter lived with him for four more years with her baby daughter. His father, who recently passed away from cancer, also moved to the campground.

“I’ve been here so long, it’s home,” Colburn said. “It’s where I feel safe.”

Like many residents at Rock ‘n’ Birch, Colburn’s house is comprised of an RV, with an add-on structure built around it. He has two bedrooms – one in the RV, one in the add-on house – along with a living room and television.

Colburn also has a sprawling garden at the campground where he keeps guinea chickens, grows eggplant, cherry tomatoes, squash and potatoes. He said he used to make canned salsa, and pass it out to Rock ‘n’ Birch residents as Christmas presents.

He said the people who live in the campground are like family.

“If somebody’s gone for a couple of weeks or a month, we try to keep an eye on their place. If someone needs help shoveling, we do it,” he said.

There are 60 lots in total at Rock ‘n’ Birch. Only 10 or 15 are occupied right now, according to Panetta, although most people who own camps come and go.

In the past, just a handful of residents chose to stay for the whole winter, Panetta said – but most came back for ice fishing and snowmobiling on weekends.

For those who did camp during the winter, Panetta kept the camp bathhouse heated. The bathhouse is equipped with male and female bathrooms, laundry machines and showers.

Occasionally, Colburn said, the power would go out – sometimes for 10 days at a time – but Panetta always brought in generators. Colburn would help to build a fire in the pavilion for people to keep warm.

Colburn said he has fond memories of the winter months – he remembers Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, and karaoke nights in the pavilion. Colburn has a “Rock ‘n’ Birch Campground Master Chef” apron that he wears while cooking.

“The winter was never that bad,” he said. “We were fine.”

The law

RSA-216-1 states that campgrounds are “intended for temporary occupancy for recreational dwelling purposes only, and not for permanent year-round residency.”

Cindy Estabrook of the New Hampshire Campground Owner’s Association said very few campgrounds are open all four seasons. The most popular time for campgrounds to be open, according to the association’s website, is May to October.

Only 10 of 140 of campground members listed on the N.H. Campground Association website advertised openings during winter months.

Those who do open in the winter usually open for weekends at special request, Estabrook said.

“People see the camp in the winter just as a place to go on Friday night, go snowmobiling all day Saturday, crash and then go back to work on Monday,” Estabrook said. “They’re not meant to be anybody’s residence.”

When people live in a campground year-round, it produces challenges for a town. A campground cannot be used as a personal address, therefore people who reside there full-time are not considered residents; they are technically homeless. That means they can’t register to vote, or register their cars or pets as residents of the town could, among other things.

At different points over the years, children from Rock ‘n’ Birch have attended school in Henniker. Even though children who live at campgrounds aren’t town residents, schools are still required by law to accommodate them. There was a Henniker bus that specifically picked up students at Rock ‘n’ Birch until last year, according to Henniker Community School Principal Karen Raymond.

Still, Panetta said most of the people who use his campground in the winter fall into the recreational category, and only come up for weekends. He said the mandated closing is hard on those people who invested in camps assuming they were going to be able to utilize them in the winter.

Many of them are from cities, and rely on Rock ‘n’ Birch to get away and relax, and allow their children to go ice skating and play in the snow.

Molly Avila of Medford, Mass., said her family has been coming to the campground for about 20 years. She said the weekend campers just want to continue to do what they’ve always done – go up to their camps and take a break from their hectic lives.

“This whole issue with being a resident or not doesn’t apply to us. We all live in Mass., we don’t want that from Henniker,” Avila said. “We only want to come up here in the winter with our families and have a nice time.”

The campers of Rock ‘n’ Birch were notified that the campground would be closed for the winter via letter from Panetta last December.

The agreement, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires a gate be installed at the campground’s entrance and be locked while the campground is closed, and access would be limited to maintenance and marketing visits by Panetta.

Panetta said he’s not even allowed to go on his property for personal visits – like sledding with his grandchildren, or Thanksgiving dinners.

Finding a new home

The last few months, tenants have been in a hurry to find new places to live.

Colburn said it’s hard to find a place with a low income – he said most housing applications he’s put in over the last couple of months have been denied.

“I filled out a bunch of applications,” he said. “Some of them tell you, ‘nope, you don’t make enough.’ Other ones, they don’t get back to you.”

Colburn has been on disability for three years. Before that, he worked for a contractor in Henniker for 11 years.

Jeff Amyote also lives in Rock ‘n’ Birch with his 19-year-old son, and is on disability. He said he plowed snow for the town of Allenstown and the state for almost 30 years before he crushed four vertebrae in his neck while on the job in the late 1990s.

Amyote’s parents have owned the camps he and his son live in now for 27 years. His mother used to spend every weekend of the summer there until she died, he said.

After that, Amyote bought the camps and started living there permanently. He said he thinks he’s put out 20 housing applications in the last five months, with no results. He recently put $100 toward an application for a trailer in Epsom, only to be rejected.

“That hurts when you make as little as I do,” he said.

Amyote said he feels like he’s running out of options.

“I told my son, ‘Clean out your backseat, because you’re going to be sleeping in it in another two weeks,’ ” he said.

Getting help

If there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that Rock ‘n’ Birch residents have had some time to prepare, said Stephanie Bray, managing attorney and foreclosure project director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

Bray knows what it looks like when residents don’t have time to prepare. The lawyer was there when more than 20 low-income residents of the downtown Concord building formerly known as “Vegas Block” – now Remi’s Block, host to 20 luxury apartments – were given barely 24 hours’ notice to leave in 2014 after the city condemned the building. The city found housing for some, but others found themselves on the curb and sleeping outside. She remembers the police going through the building, escorting people out, possessions in hand.

Bray also worked with those living at the Circle 9 Ranch Campground in Epsom, where long-term residents were forced to leave in 2016 after a new owner brought the campground into compliance with state law.

For more than a year, Bray has been working with Henniker caseworker Carol Conforti-Adams to try to get residents ready for Rock ‘n’ Birch’s closing date. It worries her that some still aren’t ready to go.

Part of that, she thinks, was that some residents refused to think Rock ‘N Birch was actually going to close.

“The legal proceedings have gone on for so long, I think it took awhile for there to be a general acceptance that this was going to happen … I think there was a bit of a ‘crying wolf’ syndrome,” Bray said. “They’d been hearing for years that the town had issues with Rock ‘n’ Birch, but it took a while for people to accept it.”

Conforti-Adams said she has been trying to reach out to people at Rock ‘n’ Birch for years to find affordable housing, but the process has not been simple.

Some people in the camps don’t have cellphones or mailboxes, for example. Conforti-Adams has been responsible for communicating with housing agencies. She said she’s made phone calls, written reference letters and even hand-delivered applications.

Although many people living at Rock ‘n’ Birch full-time are eligible for Section 8 or rent-assisted housing, wait times make that an unreasonable option. New Hampshire Housing Authority’s website estimates the wait time for a voucher is six to eight years. Henniker has two affordable housing units, one for seniors, one for families, and both are full.

The town has offered to help the full-time campers relocate in a few ways, such as paying the first month’s rent on apartments, or for storage units to house belongings.

Conforti-Adams said it’s not easy to get apartments when many have bad credit, evictions and animals they want to take with them.

She said she’s tried to reach out to everybody at the campground, but some people aren’t getting back to her.

“It’s not my role professionally or ethically to be intruding on people’s lives,” she said. “All I can do is have empathy, be there, try to be supportive and get through it.”

Bray said NLLA is prepared for some residents to be adrift: They’ve bulked up their staff to take extra phone calls from residents who don’t have a place to go on Nov. 1.

What now?

What will happen to Rock ‘n’ Birch residents still on the premises after Nov. 1 is unclear.

Henniker police Chief Matt French said there’s been no discussion on the town’s side about what the procedure should be, and as of Friday, there was no plan to sweep through the campground after the closing date. But he did point out that the court agreement stemmed from a civil case, not a criminal one – and that if residents remain at the campground, it’s Panetta, not the tenants, who will be in trouble for not enforcing the agreement.

But that doesn’t mean the town won’t be paying attention, French said.

“If you read the agreement, it says the campground is subject to inspection by town officials,” he said. “I would think that the town, after going through such an extensive legal battle, would want to do that. Otherwise, what would be the point of going through the legal action?”

French noted that in normal eviction cases, the Merrimack County Sherriff’s Department would be responsible for enforcing eviction notices. But Rock ‘n’ Birch isn’t a typical eviction case.

“Honestly, we’ve never dealt with anything like this before,” he said.

The thought of residents left with nowhere to go worries French.

“It’s absolutely awful,” he said. “The thought of someone homeless as we’re coming into the fall season ... I’d have to be a cold-hearted jackass to not worry about it. They’re still people, regardless of the living situation.”

Chairman of the Henniker Select Board Kris Blombach said he hasn’t heard anything about a contingency plan if tenants haven’t left by Nov. 1.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Blombach said.

Colburn is putting all of his belongings into a storage unit, and is planning to stay on a friend’s couch. It will be a tight squeeze – Colburn will be rooming with his friend, his friend’s wife, their three kids and new baby.

Amyote doesn’t yet know where he’ll go. When asked what he thinks the campground will look like on Nov. 1, he said:

“It’s going to be all of us, standing outside that gate looking in.”

(Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report. Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)