Maine is known for its beautiful outdoors – particularly its ability to provide a wide range of nature-based vacation options for residents and non-residents alike.

Chief among these treasured outdoor activities is camping (and even glamping), and from Eliot to Fort Fairfield, state parks, municipal parks, and private campgrounds offer everything an outdoor enthusiast could want.

Given camping’s widespread popularity, it comes as no surprise that campgrounds have found a new home within the sharing economy. Just like driving your own car for Uber, or renting out your spare bedroom (or whole apartment) on Airbnb, new platforms like Hipcamp and Tentrr are allowing property-owners to rent out their back-40 for some extra cash.

The concept makes perfect sense. Many people, particularly in Maine, own large swaths of wooded area, providing an idyllic back drop for camping. Add a savvy website that can attract potential customers, and in the case of Tentrr, actually provide the necessary equipment for would-be visitors, and we have a formula for economic success.

Of course, leave it to land use and municipal lawyers to throw a damp (not wet, but certainly damp) blanket on the situation. Why, you ask? Because many of the same local regulatory issues that plague Uber and Airbnb (explored by this blog recently) also apply to this burgeoning backyard industry.

From a landowner’s perspective, renting out unused acreage may seem like a no-brainer — and likely would never prompt a thought that doing so could violate local municipal ordinances.

This view is mistaken.

Most towns throughout Maine, particularly those in more rural parts of the state, have adopted specific definitions of campground, and require proper permitting.

Take, for example, the Town of Arundel. Its Land Use Ordinance defines campground broadly, as “any premises established for overnight use for the purpose of temporary camping, and for which a fee is charged.” And while campground are allowed within every residential zone in town, any prospective campground owner is required to receive a conditional use permit, which includes a slew of standards ranging from density restrictions, to proper septic system design.

Or, take the Town of Kennebunk. While a “campground” must include at least two campsites, campground owners must still receive a certificate of occupancy from the Town, and comply with mandatory setback and waste management rules.

All this leads to two key takeaways:

  1. Landowner Beware: there’s no doubt that new backyard rental platforms are innovative, and could prove beneficial to both Maine residents and Maine tourists — and likely is allowed (following the proper process) in most locations. However, like so many other land use activities, a potential Tentrr or Hipcamp “campground owner” would do well to consult with the Code Enforcement Officer, or better yet, a land use attorney, to determine the implications. After all, receiving a notice of violation, or potentially being subject to a hefty fine, is never on anybody’s wish list.
  2. Town Prepare: just like short-term rentals, rapid changes in land use trends often catch municipalities off guard. While many municipalities have adopted definitions of campground that can guard against the unintended consequences of these new digital platforms, most would do well to consult an attorney to ensure that such campgrounds are properly regulated. Definitions of particular land uses may need to be tweaked, and a Town may want to consider limiting backyard camping to certain areas in order to protect against adverse environmental impact. Failing to do so could allow the quick proliferation of “backyard campgrounds,” leading to a bevvy of grandfathered uses in the future.

The municipal and land use attorneys of Bergen & Parkinson, LLC have significant experience helping both towns and landowners navigate these challenges. We’d be happy to discuss your backyard campground, short-term rental, or other sharing economy questions with you, and help you find the best answers and solutions.

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