February 3, 2012
To All VAFP Members
Well done and congratulations!
Your input opposing HB 1225 and SB 571 has been heard and has been effective.
Please see State Park Director Joe Elton's message below. We should all heed his caution that these bills could return next year and, in that regard, we should all remember the park system processes he outlines in his message.
Thank you for all you do for Virginia's parks.
To Virginia State Parks Staff and Volunteers –
The House of Delegates Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, at the request of Delegate Peter Farrell, carried HB 1225 over until next year on a voice vote. In the Senate, the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, at the request of Senator Reeves, passed by indefinitely SB 571 on a voice vote.
While these bills are no longer before the legislature, they could return next year and they represent a profound misunderstanding of how our state parks plan for the development of facilities, how we set fees and how we manage our enterprise operations for the benefit of taxpayers.
The Code of Virginia specifically outlines a thorough master planning process. Our master plans call for at least three public meetings; we recruit an advisory committee of citizens representing the local community, park neighbors, recreational interests, business interests and others. The Advisory Committee works with staff from the Divisions of State Parks and Planning and Recreation Resources to develop the plan. Master Plans typically take more than a year to complete. We provide every member of the General Assembly a thirty day period for review and comment and only then are the plans adopted by the Director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Plans are required to be reviewed every five years.
Our fee review and setting process normally begins after Labor Day when we research and review what other providers of camping services charge. We review the fees charged by both public and private campgrounds in Virginia . We also review what other state park systems in neighboring and southeastern states charge. Our 2011 review found that our fees were higher than most state park systems in the region. We are higher than the National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers and United States Forest Service at their Virginia campgrounds. It is true that we are lower than some private campgrounds, but it is also true that some private campgrounds charge less than we do. We believe our campground design and maintenance standards are superior to most in the industry. We believe we provide quality service and access to outstanding outdoor recreation. We also showcase some of Virginia ’s most remarkable natural and cultural treasures. At the same time, we understand that the taxpayers have invested in the development of our parks and they expect them to be affordable. Our customer surveys show that park users rate us highly on the condition of our facilities, on the friendliness and professionalism of our staff and on the condition of our natural resources. At the same time, our lowest rated area is the fees we charge. We constantly strive to strike the proper balance between our fees, which contribute to the quality of the facilities and services we can provide and being affordable to the owners of our parks – the working men and women of Virginia . I believe we do an admirable job in striking the balance – though not perfect. As you know we increased camping fees this year by $2 per night on water and electric sites, but did not raise fees on primitive and standard sites. We believe that is striking a reasonable balance. The introduced budget for next fiscal year reduces our General Fund support by $800,000. The fee increase is expected to recover about half that amount.
Lastly, we manage our restaurants, concessions, marinas, bike, canoe, kayak and horse liveries, our gift shops and camp stores in a manner consistent with the expectations of our visitors and with a goal of providing excellent customer service and a smart bottom line for the taxpayers. As you know, we continue to have some wonderful partnerships around the state with private businesses that provide these services. However, it is our experience that in many locations there simply are not qualified and competent businesses interested in partnering with state parks. That is largely because most of our operations are small, but labor intensive. We have found over the past fifteen years that we can create a better bottom line for the taxpayers by providing many of these services in-house. Our staff has a powerful incentive to perform well. They know that every dollar we make is reinvested in our park system’s maintenance and development. If we create a better bottom line, we can reinvest our profits in people, services and facilities to better serve Virginians and to be better stewards of the lands, waters and facilities they have entrusted to us.
On a personal note, I want to reiterate that I am indebted to our many friends in the Virginia Campground Association who opposed these bills and who are strong, collaborative partners with us. I want to also express my deep gratitude to the leadership of the Virginia Association for Parks, the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, the Virginia Horse Council, the Virginia Bicycling Federation and all the others who lent their support during the debate over these bills. Johnny and Jo Finch were present at every meeting to speak on behalf of our parks from the perspective of volunteers who work side by side with park staff. They met with legislators and their staff and they got the word out all across Virginia .
Together, with all these groups, we have set our sights on promoting Virginia as the best camping and travel destination in America . We have all the assets at our fingertips – our pristine Atlantic coastline, beautiful Chesapeake Bay, our great rivers – the Potomac, Shenandoah, James, York, Appomattox, Staunton and New Rivers, as well as dozens of other scenic brooks and streams. We also showcase our world renowned Blue Ridge Mountains and Alleghany Highlands of the ancient Appalachian Range. Combined with Virginia ’s award winning southern hospitality we have many positive tourism attractions.
Thanks to each of you for informing your friends, neighbors, family and community about these bills. The input our elected officials received from the working families of Virginia made a difference.
Summary of HB 1225 and SB 571
Camping grounds; competition with private businesses. Requires the Department of Conservation and Recreation, on or before March 1 of each year, to set its camping ground fees at or above the mean fee charged for the same service by private camping grounds in the same and adjoining counties. The bill prohibits the Department from constructing any new camping ground unless it concludes that private camping ground operators are not providing the area with adequate camping facilities. The bill also prohibits the Department from operating any restaurant, store, or other facility that competes with a private business in the same county or an adjoining county unless it makes a good-faith, unsuccessful effort to secure a private business to operate the facility every two years.