RV parks the new worker villages
The industrial megaprojects being built in Calcasieu Parish, combined with the need to house temporary workers, has led the Police Jury to approve 41 zoning requests for recreational vehicle parks over the last five years.
Since 2013, police jurors have approved 2,830 RV spaces, according to the parish’s planning and development department. Of that total, 1,781 spaces later received development permits from parish planning officials.
Some police jurors, however, have said recently that the parish has too many RV parks, and they plan to vote down any future rezoning requests.
"I just feel like we have enough," District 13 Police Juror Francis Andrepont told the American Press on Friday. "I think we have saturated the parish with them, and some aren’t even full — maybe half-full or less."
Wes Crain, parish planning and development director, said private developers have brought in RV parks to fill the housing gap for temporary workers at these industrial projects. Another $65 billion in anticipated projects could bring about more interested developers looking to rezone land to house RVs.
Crain said introducing RV parks is a better alternative to overbuilding permanent housing or expensive "man camp" worker villages.
The Police Jury in 2014 approved a new zoning classification, R-RVP, to create development standards for RV parks built in Calcasieu. It separated the RV zoning from manufactured home parks.
The Police Jury has received 66 RV zoning requests since 2013. From 2008 to 2012, there were only four RV zoning requests.
RV parks have taken the place of temporary worker villages, which several residents strongly opposed at the time. The Police Jury has approved six worker villages in unincorporated areas, totalling 11,000 beds. Moss Lake Village is the only one operating. Crain said in April that only 800 of its 2,500 beds are occupied.
Some RV rezoning requests vary in size, with some asking for less than five spaces, and others asking for 150 or more spaces.
The largest approved request this year was by Guzzino Land LLC for a 173-space RV park at the 7500 block of La. 27 South in Carlyss. Police jurors on Sept. 20 voted 7-5 for the rezoning, despite opposition from several residents. The park is intended to house workers for the $15 billion Driftwood LNG terminal.
Just because an RV park has received its development permit doesn’t mean it has been built, Crain said.
"Some may be under construction, and they may be phasing it," he said. "The developer has that option."
Because of this and other factors, Crain said it’s difficult to say for sure how many RV spaces are currently occupied parishwide.
"A lot of these out-of-state workers go from job to job; it’s just the nature of this kind of business," he said.
Melissa Buchanan, former operator of the Hidden Ponds RV park on Ravia Road, said they experienced a "95 percent-plus occupancy" during a 1.5-year stretch of operation. The Police Jury approved rezoning the property south of Sulphur in 2016 to allow for 168 RV spaces. The park has 226 RV sites overall, not counting 80 mobile home spaces, Buchanan said.
Buchanan said the neighboring RV parks had a "good working relationship" when it came to accommodating an influx of workers. She said they sold Hidden Ponds in August.
"If you were full, you could send them to someone else," Buchanan said. "There was always a little bit of a turn, but many of our months we had zero vacancy."
Since taking a stand against approving new RV parks, Andrepont said residents in his district have publicly thanked him. He said the parish has peaked "from an economic development point of view."
"In the future, if we go through another boom, I’m going to relook at it," he said. "I’m not trying to impede growth. If I thought there was a shortage, I would be glad to go back and say I made a mistake, (but) that’s going to have to be proven to me."
District 6 Police Juror Dennis Scott said he has opposed new RV parks, aside from luxury ones, for the last six months. At the Sept. 20 Police Jury meeting, he said the parish should review its ordinances on RV parks and set higher standards.
"I don’t want 50 (RVs) here, 10 there, or 25 there," Scott said.
Scott said RV parks can cause health and safety issues, especially during emergencies.
"They are not safe when it comes to moving out for hurricanes or tornadoes," Scott said.
He also said developers are lowering rent in order to fill vacancies at RV parks. Lacassine RV park, located in Jeff Davis Parish, is far short of its 500-space occupancy and has lowered its monthly rent from $525 to $350, Scott said.
"Now they’re trying to give the spots away," Scott said. "They’re not even half full."
Kyle Clawson, project manager for Lacassine RV park, said the occupancy is "about 175 to 185 people." While RV parks usually see a drop toward the end of the year, he said he expects it to grow into 2019. The park has been open for roughly three years.
"We’re experiencing a boost right now," Clawson said. "We hope to have 300 to 400 people as the boost continues."
Clawson said monthly rent fluctuates as more RV parks open, and occupancy changes as contract workers start and end their jobs. He said the rent is $350 per month plus tax and was never $525 per month.
At the Nov. 15 meeting, District 7 Police Juror Chris Landry asked parish staff to look into changing the ordinance so that property zoned for an RV park reverts to its previous zoning if it isn’t developed within a certain time frame. If not, he said Calcasieu is well on its way to having the most RV parks in the state.
"I think we may win that," Landry said. "We probably are already there."
Buchanan is the business director for Custom Touch Village, which specializes in providing housing needs for contract workers. She said their group will continue to make investments in the housing market into the new year.
"There’s no doubt Lake Charles is one of the strongest emerging markets in the U.S.," she said.
Within the last few years, Buchanan said they have learned a lot about housing for major industrial projects.
"The biggest takeaway is that housing in general is the last thing that companies think about, but the first thing we need," she said.
As some industrial projects end, Buchanan said there may be a lull in activity, but the housing demand overall will continue to be strong.