The proposed increases – which would be the first since 2002 – would put fees in line with other campgrounds in RI and neighboring states and shift a portion of the funding burden from RI taxpayers to campers and other park users
PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has filed a regulation proposing to raise camping fees for the first time since 2002. This would put these fees more in line with the rates charged by public and private campgrounds both in Rhode Island and nearby states, as required by law. The regulation also proposes charging market rates for user fees on park rentals such as equestrian areas, picnic tables, and picnic shelters, for overnight parking at state parks, and for a round of golf at Goddard Memorial State Park.
As part of Governor Raimondo's initiative to support and celebrate state parks and beaches, DEM hopes to reinvest the new revenue – which will be estimated once the public rulemaking process is complete – back into Rhode Island's system of parks and beaches. According to a recent study, Rhode Island's parks and beaches rank first nationally in visits per acre but 47th in state support per visit. If approved after the rulemaking process, the new fee structure would be applicable to new reservations; rates for campground reservations booked before enactment of the new regulation will not change. The draft regulations can be found on the Secretary of State's website.
DEM is seeking to shift a portion of the funding burden for camping and site rentals from the Rhode Island taxpayer to the users of these services. Unlike parks and beaches, which are accessible to all, campgrounds and rental areas grant exclusive use for a specific increment of time. Rhode Island state law (42-17.1-9-1 (c)) states, "Camping and other special uses may be charged when appropriate. Rates so charged should be comparable to equivalent commercial facilities." Rates at state-owned campgrounds, however, are lower than most public and privately-owned camping areas (see attached table). Two-thirds of campers staying at state campgrounds are out-of-state visitors.
"After discussions with legislative leaders, DEM has decided to take an incremental approach and proceed with just the camping and other park fee increases at this time," said DEM Director Janet Coit. "The Governor's state parks Initiative aims to celebrate and support state parks and beaches and the controversy around increasing beach parking fees was detracting from these larger goals. Across the board, legislative leaders and the public who attended the recent listening sessions express enthusiasm and appreciation for the quality, diversity, and accessibility of state parks and beaches. That's our focus."
Rhode Island's natural and public assets – including 8,200 acres of parkland, 1,000 campsites, 400 miles of hiking and biking trails, 200 fishing spots, 25 parks and nature preserves, and eight saltwater beaches – are magnets, attracting more than 9 million Rhode Islanders and tourists a year. They're also an engine that adds an estimated $315 million to the economy, generating nearly $40 million in state and local taxes and supporting nearly 4,000 jobs a year. However, more visitors (a 37% increase in beach visitation from 2010 to 2017), far fewer employees (full-time staffing in DEM's Parks and Recreation Division has dropped by 67%, to 42 FTEs from 123, since 1989), longer seasons, and aging facilities are hindering DEM's ability to meet some park users' expectations.
"DEM is examining every possible way to responsibly invest in our public system of parks and beaches because, according to our experts' report, Rhode Island is not doing enough now to preserve them for future generations," Director Coit said. "Charging market-based fees to the users who benefit from these facilities will help us do that – and make it fairer by shifting some of the funding burden away from Rhode Island taxpayers."
The study cited by Coit calls on the state to make a strategic, sustained, long-term investment to increase the self-sufficiency and economic potential of the park system, protect infrastructure, enhance programs, and bolster operations and staffing. Since 2012 and using the Rhode Island Capital Plan Fund, DEM has invested $6.3M in campground upgrades. These include $5.4M for utility upgrades and new bathrooms at Fishermen's Memorial Campground in Narragansett and $898K to bring modern, fully accessible restrooms and shower facilities to George Washington Memorial Campground in Glocester for the first time. With new fees and funding, DEM hopes to improve state parks and campgrounds and improve visitor services and amenities with cleaner facilities and bathrooms, new and expanded outdoor recreation opportunities such as bike rentals and kayak excursions, Wi-Fi at some locations, and online state beach passes and site rentals.
Under the proposal, DEM will differentiate prices based on location and available utilities. For example, rates would be higher for a waterfront campsite or one with a water view versus a more densely settled site located elsewhere in the campground. DEM is organizing campsites into different tiers based on available utilities: no hookups (Tier 3), water and electric (Tier 2), and water, electric and sewer (Tier 3).
A public hearing on the proposed fees will be held on Tuesday, April 2, at 2 PM in Room 300 at DEM Headquarters, 235 Promenade Street in Providence, with written comment being accepted by DEM until 4 PM on April 17. The hearing room is accessible to people with disabilities, and interpreter services for the hearing impaired will be provided if a request is made at least 72 hours in advance by calling DEM at 831-5508 (TDD).
Written comments should be submitted to email@example.com. The draft regulations can be found on the Secretary of State's website. The materials also are available by emailing Tom.Rosa@dem.ri.gov or by calling him at 667-6200 on weekdays from 8:30 AM to 4 PM.
DEM will consider and respond to public input before issuing final regulations later this spring.
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