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Middleborough shuts down crowded campground

The town of Middleborough is taking drastic measures to ensure that the owners of a local seasonal campground comply with a court order that says they must close unless they reduce the number of visitors to what is allowed.

In the latest development in a decades-long feud, town officials last week stationed a police cruiser at the entrance to Tispaquin Family Campground after the chain they had installed to block the road was removed by the property’s owners.

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Plymouth Superior Court Judge Robert C. Cosgrove had ordered the 40-acre facility closed after owners Barbara and Ralph Holton ignored a June 2012 ruling to remove all but 57 campers on the property by April 1 or shutter it.

After the owners appealed the ruling and lost, but indicated they would not comply, Town Manager Charles Cristello said Middleborough had no choice but to follow the judge’s orders and close the Purchase Street facility.

“If people show up, a sign says closed by order of the court,’’ Cristello said. “That would put anyone on notice that something drastic has happened there.”

Barbara Holton said in an interview that the chain the town installed was removed because there had been no agreement on exactly where it would go.

The Holtons have run the lakeside vacation grounds since 1984 and say their permit allows for 57 camp sites, not 57 individual campers, as the town and court have said.

The family has instead accepted more than 100 campers at any one time, officials said.

At the heart of the disagreement are town health officials, who say the added number of campers violates the property’s original permit allowing no more than 57 campers. Taking on more renders the camp’s septic system unable to handle the flow, according to the health department.

Holton said the septic system is fine and she believes local officials have a personal vendetta. The parties have been in and out of court for years.

“I could have President Obama call the town manager and say, ‘Look, that woman is operating like everyone else in the state,’ ” Holton said. “And he’d say, ‘Sorry. Our health officer says no.’ ”

The Board of Health officer, Jeanne Spalding, has told Holton that if she increases the number of campers at her site she has to upgrade her septic system. But Holton says her bathrooms, and the system itself, had passed Title 5 inspections in the past.

In his ruling, Cosgrove said the Holtons have expended significant effort, “little of it productive,” in “contriving ways of appealing, staying, or otherwise avoiding the orders of the court.”

Despite being characterized as in “flagrant and open defiance” of the June ruling, Holton said she believes she’s in the right. She said she has spent hours pleading her case before town boards, most recently last month to selectmen, who denied her application for a seasonal permit as they have every year since 2002.

Holton said she has spent more than $1 million on lawyers and engineers and is now banking on pending legislation on Beacon Hill to lower the required sewer system capacity for family campgrounds. House Bills 683 and 784 call for lawmakers to relax unnecessarily strict regulations that threaten family campgrounds related to septic flow, volume discharge, gray water, lot size, and approved chemical additives — while also protecting the environment — to encourage family tourism. Existing properties would be grandfathered in, if necessary, so they can survive, according to the bills that are making their way through committees.

However, town officials insist the engineers Holton has hired agree her septic system can’t handle the added flow. She argues their determinations are judged by current standards and not the ones in place 30 years ago when they bought and opened the campground.

Other engineering reports the Holtons have commissioned say the campground is free of immanent health issues and has never exhibited unsanitary conditions, Holton said, insisting the system should be “grandfathered” because it predates current regulations.

But the town is holding firm.

Selectman Allin Frawley said it’s not an issue of whether the Holtons run a good operation, because he has heard they do.

“There is nothing I would like better than to be serving on a board that would give Barbara Holton a license, but we are all playing by the same rules,’’ he said. “She has more than exhausted her appeals.”

Frawley said officials discovered a camper parked in the driveway a day after the chain was removed, so the town couldn’t put it back up. Because of that, police were called and have instructions that no one but the Holtons can enter the property, he said. “And she will be billed for the [police] detail.”

If that doesn’t work, maybe Jersey barriers will, Frawley said. “Nobody is happy about this. But enough is enough.”

E-mail Michele Morgan Bolton at michelebolton@live.com.
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