Plight of ‘boondockers’ in Grand County embodies affordable housing crisis felt in mountain towns

Kyle McCabe
SkyHi News
One of Sun Outdoors’ Airstream trailers sits at their Rocky Mountain location in Granby.
Tracy Ross/Sky-Hi News

On a Bureau of Land Management Road northeast of Hot Sulphur Springs, Bob Sinclair and his wife parked their camper trailer near Kinney Creek. For a few years, the couple has camped throughout most of the summer, returning to their house to shower and get more supplies before heading to a new spot.

The Sinclairs sold their home and have been living out of their fifth wheel trailer for a little over a year, Bob said. The couple lived on BLM land from June to October 2021, when they started renting an RV site at Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains in Granby. The resort, which features RV sites, lodging and tent sites, opened in 2019 as River Run RV Park and rebranded in 2021

Sun Outdoors increases their rates during their busy season, which a representative said was from mid-May to mid-October. When the rates increased this summer, the Sinclairs went back to residing on public lands — a practice known as “boondocking.”

Aaron Keil parked his camper trailer at Sun Outdoors with his daughter for about a month before he also left because of rate increases. The Navy and Army veteran, avionics electrician and junior engineer helps rebuild homes in Grand County after they burned down in the East Troublesome Fire

Keil came to the county three years ago and would rent housing for part of the year. In the winters, his parents would leave their Grand Lake home of 25 years and stay in Arizona to avoid the cold weather. Keil and his daughter would live in that house while they were gone. This summer, though, Keil could not find any rentals he could afford.

Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby are pictured July 16. This area of Grand County includes public land access and dispersed camping options through the Arapahoe National Forest.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

“It was probably two to three months before my parents even got up here. So we’re talking like March or so, I start looking for a place and it’s just impossible,” Keil said. “You start finding out that you either have to know somebody that knows somebody that will rent the downstairs to you, but there’s just nowhere to go.”

In April, Keil decided to have his trailer shipped to Grand County from Arizona and made reservations to stay at Sun Outdoors. He said he expected to pay $1,100 per month for the RV site, which comes with electricity, water and sewer hook-ups, Wi-Fi and more. Once he arrived, he discovered $1,100 was the rate he was expected to pay every two weeks.

“We do this for another two or three weeks because I can’t afford this,” Keil said. “When you get stuck in the peak months at (Sun Outdoors), you’re paying $2,500 (per month), almost $100 a day. And so I had to make the decision.”

Keil decided to start boondocking after hearing about it from other people who were staying in RVs at Sun Outdoors. The Sinclairs and others told him that campers could park on public lands as long as they moved every 14 days. While it was not his ideal living situation, he decided to leave the vacation resort.

The Bureau of Land Management policy

Without a truck to tow his trailer with, Keil has stuck with the Sinclairs since they started boondocking. The group bought a generator so they could have electricity while in the woods, but they did not have amenities like the Wi-Fi and water and sewage hook-ups they had at Sun Outdoors. 

They planned to move campsites every 14 days to follow BLM policy, but they say officials started to enforce a part of the policy they had not enforced in the past — campers needed to move at least 30 miles from their last campsite every time they relocated.

“A ranger was like, ‘I know what your trailers look like, if you’re within 30 miles, I can impound your trailer or ticket you guys,’ and I’m just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Keil said. “You guys know the difficulties that some of us are dealing with, and they don’t care. Nobody cares.”

The early morning sun hits public land in Grand County from a vantage point in Rocky Mountain National Park on July 16.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

Jamie Westenfelder, a BLM law enforcement officer, said the bureau has had this policy for over 12 years. While an uptick in violations of the rule has led to more law enforcement efforts, the bureau has always enforced it, Westenfelder said.

Ryan Kay, the bureau’s acting Kremmling field manager, said the bureau has the policy to keep public lands healthy and make sure visitors can recreate safely.

“Definitely not all of the situations have this, but we do have quite a few situations where occupancy or long-term residency in public lands is also associated with other illegal activities — trash dumping, digging, cutting of vegetation,” Kay said.

Affordable housing in Grand County

While some boondockers may live out of RVs and campers by choice, Keil found himself living on public lands out of necessity. His situation exemplifies the affordable housing crisis in Grand County. estimates the fair market rental rate in Grand County to be $1,279 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. The website says that is higher than 76% of Colorado.

While the Grand County Housing Authority estimated in 2018 that the county needed 275 additional housing units by 2023, the Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership states on its website that there is a housing gap of 645 to 730 units in the valley. The partnership between Fraser, Granby, Winter Park and the county started this year, and it appointed its at-large directors July 18.

At Sun Outdoors’ conference center Thursday, the partnership hosted an event to share the working draft of their new housing needs assessment, which covers the three towns in the partnership and unincorporated areas between them.

The partnership released results July 14 from their recent community survey. After learning about how the partnership would operate and use tax money, 64% of area voters showed support for a 0.2%, or 2 mill, property tax to raise $1.2 million per year for the partnership.

Grand County Commissioner Randy George, who replaced former commissioner Kris Manguso when she became community development director in June, said that the county currently offers down payment and rental assistance, senior housing and homebuyer education classes through its housing authority.

The commissioners recognize affordable housing as a major issue in the county, George said. They discuss aspects of the crisis regularly, including the impact of short term rentals on affordable housing. 

The county has worked with Coyote Creek and The Ranches at Devil’s Thumb on an agreement to assess a 0.5% affordable housing fee on sales to homeowners for the Grand County Housing Authority, George said. He called the program a long-term plan because the fee will not “bring in a lot of money.”

“If more and more and more private developers will buy into that, then that will put the county and the housing authority in a position to be able to do more to encourage the construction of affordable housing,” George said.

George spoke highly of affordable and workforce housing projects being built by the town of Winter Parkresort at Winter Park and the town of Granby. He also mentioned the Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership.

“That’s a new entity that may be in a position to develop some housing in the future,” George said. “It’s just getting started.”

The boondockers

Having to move 30 miles from campsite to campsite — about the distance from Berthoud Pass to Grand Lake — makes boondocking more difficult and inconvenient. The Sinclairs have moved their camper trailer back to Sun Outdoors, where they will stay indefinitely.

“That’s a hardship,” Bob said. “That’s $2,500 a month for July and August, then it comes down. … Wintertime is affordable.”

The Sinclairs can afford Sun Outdoors because Bob works as a mobile mechanic, fixing construction and logging equipment as well as fifth-wheel trailers and motorhomes. Keil, on the other hand, cannot afford Sun Outdoors, so he and his daughter are going to live at a friend’s vacation home temporarily.

“​​I don’t know how long that’s gonna last,” Keil said. “I don’t know where I’m gonna go next. … It’s just — it’s chaotic. It’s not the kind of life I’d rather be living, especially being a veteran and trying to help this community.”

In Arizona, Keil owns a house he had been renting. When his tenant moved to Texas, he decided to sell the house, which is currently on the market. Money from that sale could provide him some relief, but he said he does not know what to do in the meantime.

“If you’re trying to kick all the good people out of here, it’s working,” Keil said.

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