Upset mobile home owners seek reprieve from federal agency’s order to move out
Bureau of Reclamation says plans for Swanson and Red Willow Reservoirs have been in the works for years
LINCOLN — Seventeen years ago, Bill Roddy found a little piece of paradise along a quiet reservoir in southwest Nebraska.
Roddy, then living in the Denver area, purchased a mobile home that was for sale on leased land that sits along Swanson Reservoir, a 5,000-acre fishing and recreation lake near Trenton.
Soon, Roddy was a part of a “big family” of 110 mobile home owners, joining boat and golf cart “parades,” a “prom night” party held at the local marina and even pitching in to help a local business clean up storm damage.
“It’s Colorado people, Nebraska folks, it’s Kansas folks, some locals … it’s just a great community,” he said. “It’s just a big family.”
But now, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wants the mobile homes — which have been there for five decades — removed by November 2024 to make way for a proposed slate of improvements that include a new campground, “glamping” tents and cabins, a splash pad and a dog wash.
‘We’re just beyond ourselves’
The same order to remove trailers by the end of the 2024 recreation season goes for a collection of 71 mobile homes located at Red Willow Reservoir north of McCook.
But the trailer owners are fighting back and seeking to rescind the order via appeals to the Bureau of Reclamation, the local county board and Nebraska’s congressional delegation.
“We’re just beyond ourselves about why the Bureau of Reclamation wants to kick us out,” said Roddy, who relocated to Trenton three years ago because he liked it so much. He works remotely for a security firm.
“If they want a new campground, there’s plenty of places to do that up there, and there’s better places to do it rather than that piece of ground,” he said.
The mobile home owners packed a special meeting Monday of the Hitchcock County Board, which is trying to help them.
The county gets about $30,000 a year in personal property tax payments from the trailer owners, and the estimated 200-400 people who recreate at Swanson Reservoir on weekends are an important economic boost to local businesses.
Running into ‘roadblocks’
“It’s as big a town as any of our other towns in our county,” said Paul Nichols, the chairman of the Hitchcock County Board.
He said he’s “run into roadblocks” in trying to negotiate a deal to retain the mobile homes.
“They’re just hard to get along with,” Nichols said.
Aaron Thompson, area manager at the Bureau’s Nebraska-Kansas regional office in McCook, said Wednesday that while he understands the concerns of local businesses and trailer owners, the plan to move out the mobile homes was first adopted in 2005.
The lake concessionaires were well aware of the plan to phase out the trailers by 2020, a plan that had been delayed until now, he said.
“We didn’t make this decision overnight. It’s been an ongoing process over 25 years,” Thompson said.
The problem with the mobile home sites, he said, is that not every member of the public has a chance to rent a lot there, which amounts to a “private exclusive use” of public land, contrary to Bureau policy.
Roddy said that when he purchased his two-bedroom trailer at Swanson, several others were for sale. Once he bought the mobile home, he signed a lease with the local concessionaire to remain there.
But Thompson said that amounts to exclusive private use.
“While we empathize with those permit holders who are impacted, the community will benefit by more recreational opportunities,” he said.
The mobile home owners and the concession operator at Swanson lake, however, aren’t taking “move out” as the final answer.
They have contacted the offices of U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer and U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, as well as Gov. Jim Pillen and former State Sen. Dan Hughes, now a member of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s board of directors, to intervene.
“This is a big draw for the area,” said Dawna Vap, who has operated the concession at Swanson Reservoir, the Good Life Marina & Restaurant, for the past 13 years.
The Bureau’s website has a colorful slide show of proposed improvements at both Swanson and Red Willow Reservoirs, which include new campgrounds, “glamping” (a combination of glamor and camping) tents, mini-cabins and playgrounds, and new restaurant/marinas.
The slide show touts “updated amenities,” “more vibrant and attractive space for visitors” as well as “increased revenue for the concessionaire.”
Public input sought
Thompson, the Bureau official, said the agency is seeking public input on the proposals, which project that the concessionaires at the two lakes could double their revenue. Some construction, he said, could begin by 2025.
Right now, the concessionaires — who lease land to operate their restaurant/marina/bait shop businesses — get revenue from leasing lots to the mobile homes (at $1,200 per year per lot) of $136,800 at Swanson lake and $106,500 at Red Willow lake. That is on top of money they make selling food, fuel and fishing equipment.
The Bureau estimates that revenue for concessionaires from the new campgrounds would more than double based on 50% occupancy of the glamping tents (at $80 a night), the cabins (at $150 per night) and camping fees.
But Roddy and others called that unrealistic and express doubts that the Bureau will come up with the funding — which locals said they were told was $10 million — to build such improvements in a very rural area of Nebraska.
“They don’t even come close to filling the campgrounds now,” said Roddy of Swanson Reservoir.
Mobile homes allowed elsewhere
He and others involved say that when the Bureau ordered trailers off the concessionaire’s land at nearby Medicine Creek Reservoir a few years ago, there were promises of redevelopment, but only a “weed patch” is there now.
They also complain that private mobile homes have been allowed on other Bureau reservoirs in Kansas. So why can’t that continue at the Nebraska reservoirs?
Thompson said each reservoir is unique and has its own management plan.
As far as funding, he said he has $1.1 million in his budget for campground improvements and that other Bureau funds are available.
Thompson said people just need to look at another Bureau property, Davis Creek Reservoir in central Nebraska near North Loup, to see how the agency can make improvements.
In partnership with the local natural resources district, he said, the agency has spent $2 million at Davis Creek in recent years to upgrade campgrounds and build a shower house and fish cleaning station.
A similar partnership could be established at Swanson and Red Willow, Thompson said. But, he added, a local entity, like an NRD, would have to show they are capable of managing the lake property as the State Game and Parks Commission did.
No good options
When contacted Wednesday, a representative of the Middle Republican NRD in Curtis said they had not been contacted about partnering at the two reservoirs in their area.
The biggest losers, if the trailers are moved away from Swanson and Red Willow, might be the concessionaires who lease land from the Bureau.
Vap, at Swanson Reservoir, said she would lose the steady business she gets from the weekend crowds that use the mobile home park.
“We would be done,” she said.
She estimated that she and her family have invested close to $1 million over the years in purchasing and updating their Good Life Marina & Restaurant, one of only two eateries in the vicinity of the lake.
Vap said that in 2010, after a previous concessionaire quit, her family bought the business and obtained a 10-year lease on 19 acres of land, which included the marina and the trailer park.
But in 2020, she said, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission ended its agreement with the Bureau to manage the lake.
Since then, the Good Life Marina has operated on a year-to-year basis with the Bureau, which has given them until June 16 to decide if they want to continue to be the concessionaire at Swanson Reservoir, absent the 110 mobile homes.
Vap said there aren’t many good options from her end. Either she signs a lease for a business which, she maintains, will have a reduced clientele, or declines to sign a lease and gives up a business she hoped to sell to help finance retirement.
The Bureau, Vap said, has offered to compensate her for the buildings and equipment they own on the reservoir, but not the value of the business they built.
Thompson, the Bureau official, said the government owns the “business opportunity,” while the concessionaires own their fixed assets.
Those affected by the order to move the trailers say they’re not giving up.
“We’ll just wait and see if we can get some help somewhere,” Vap said.
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