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Zoning dispute diverts off-road event to Royalton

  • Steve Henderson, of Sharon, is expecting 120 off-roading enthusiasts in addition to his 32 seasonal guests to camp at his Henderson’s Hideaway Campground in Royalton, Vt., during The Pilgrimage overland rally beginning Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021 and continuing through the weekend. The campground will be the base for drivers taking to class 4 roads in Vermont. Henderson mows the camp on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

 Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2021 6:00:34 PM
Modified: 9/22/2021 10:39:13 PM

ROYALTON — Some residents and town officials are raising concerns about an event for off-road vehicles based at the Henderson’s Hideaway Campground this weekend because of how it could impact class 4 roads. 

About 130 vehicles have registered to participate in the annual “Pilgrimage,” an event which has been held at property in Reading, Vt., now owned by organizer Derek Chace. Starting on Thursday, attendees will spend their nights at the Royalton campground and spend their days driving on class 4 roads across Vermont, potentially ranging as far as the Canadian and Massachusetts borders, Chace said.

Class 4 roads are not maintained by towns but remain public rights of way.

Chace met with the Royalton Selectboard last week, although town officials do not have the authority to stop a private event on a private site, or constrict who drives on the town’s class 4 roads.

“Our class 4 roads are fairly fragile,” Royalton Selectboard Chairman Chris Noble said at the meeting. “The last thing we need is somebody going on and making a fragile road more fragile. The community-feel we have here is that these things don’t really do our roads any favors.”

Jojo Levasseur, a Royalton resident, asserted to the Selectboard that “this is not a good idea at all.” She referenced roads that have eroded so much that they are no longer drivable. She argued that the town should plan for the possibility that the state would make it responsible for repairs on class 4 roads. 

Chace argued that weather and lack of maintenance are responsible for most roads’ degradation. He also said that the driving at the event — known as “overlanding” — would only be an erosion concern during mud season or the winter. The Pilgrimage attracts a wide range of vehicles, from 1950s Jeeps to new Range Rovers.

The Pilgrimage is a “family-heavy activity,” he said in an interview. His own three children will join when they're not in school.

Participants will also be spending most of their time outside of Royalton, which has relatively few miles of class 4 roads. Attendees will use the town’s main roads to access class 4 roads.

“South Royalton is what people think of when they think of Vermont,” Chace said. He chose the town because it has “so many amenities,” including restaurants, the White River, farmstands, and nearby gas stations.

He emphasized that the Pilgrimage would benefit the town’s economy. In 2019, the event’s organizers calculated that the average attendee spent as much as $1,500 in just four days. Many out-of-state visitors are eager to buy Vermont staples like maple syrup and craft beer, he said.

Chace has set some ground rules. The attendees will not travel in groups larger than six, everyone will be given a trash bag to help clean up the trails, and they will be off the roads by sunset.

The Pilgrimage is not being held in Reading because that town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the permit that Chace applied for because it is a commercial event. Neighbors raised concerns about traffic, noise, the event's environmental impact, dust, and sanitation for the large group, according to town documents. Although Royalton has some zoning ordinances, none give the town the authority to regulate an event like this on a private campground, town officials said.

“They’ve put us in an awkward position because we’re not in a position to say no. There’s no real recourse unless someone does something egregious,” said Tim Murphy, who serves on the Selectboard. 

At the Selectboard meeting, Murphy noted for the record that he felt the event was too large for the Henderson’s Hideaway Campground.

In an interview, he noted that there is a “blind hill” entering the campground. 

“It’s a small, one-lane road in and out. That’s a lot of people exiting in a tough spot,” he said. 

Cheryl Reed owns the campground with her husband Steve Henderson. She said that they have hosted other large events with no problem. 

“I think it’s a fantastic economic benefit to the town of South Royalton and Bethel and the towns around,” she said. “We’re excited to be able to host something that’s going to help the area.” They have already hosted about 100 off-road vehicles like the ones that will come to the Pilgrimage this summer without any issues, she added.

Chace appealed Reading’s zoning decision. Depending on the environmental court’s ruling, the Pilgrimage may return to Reading. Either way, Chace said that he is open to keeping the event in South Royalton if the attendees enjoyed the location and the “majority of residents and the business community” responded well. 

Noble said that he would “watch carefully” to make sure that the attendees are “good stewards.” After speaking with Chace, though, he said that he would be “very surprised” if this group abused the land. He will check in with merchants after the event to make sure that they get a financial boost. He characterized the event as a test-run for a possible partnership.

“They just want to see the countryside, and I can’t blame them for that,” he said. “I know how magnificent it is here — most of the world is not like this. I’d feel a little bit selfish to keep it to ourselves.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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