“A couple times a month we get unsolicited offers for Camp Crowell,” says Charlene Meidlinger, Assistant Executive Director for the Girl Scouts National Capital Council.
“I always tell them ‘no,’” she laughs.
Camp Crowell, a 60-acre camp in Oakton, Va., is a short 20-minute drive from the Washington, D.C., Beltway, is easily accessible to more than 50,881 Girl Scouts and 22,036 adults, often providing the only link to nature the local city-locked scouts can enjoy, and is located in Fairfax County, arguably one of the wealthiest counties in the country.
Case in point: the average cost of a home in Oakton is $648,900, and a recent review of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), which lists all of the properties for sale in the area, showed nearly a quarter of the homes for sale were listed at more than $1 million. Several of those were approaching $2 million.
With money like this around, it’s no surprise that the offers Meidlinger receives are in the “the tens of millions of dollars range.”
It’s also not a unique situation. Both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are watching this scenario play out all over the country as rising real-estate values clash with declining numbers of scouts, forcing organizational realignments and programmatic concerns. Here’s how three different groups are dealing with the fallout.
Girl Scouts In The Nation’s Capital
Why does the National Capital Area Girl Scouts Council summarily dismiss these stratospheric offers for its property?
The short answer is, it doesn’t need the money, but the long answer is more revealing:
1. Camping is part of the council’s culture and as the concrete of local property development swallows open space, the camps and outdoor education centers/programs become all the more important.
2. Camp Crowell is busy year round – running programs during the day and evening in the summer as well as every weekend throughout the year.
3. As a priority, the eight camps owned by the council are well maintained and funded. The last two capital campaigns resulted in $7 million of upgrades and added facilities.
4. Strategic plans and operating budgets are in place to ensure the camps are available as long as interest in camping survives.
And that, it seems, is the key point. As long as interest in camping survives, so will Camp Crowell. This philosophy is not without precedent. In the 1970s, another Fairfax County camp, Camp Hollin Acres, was sold with two camps to reduce the number of properties owned by the council from 11 to eight. Camping was on the decline then, staff was different, and the Girl Scouts were in a reinvention period.
Today, camping in the capital is alive and well and thriving. Camp Crowell is a “dearly, dearly loved” camp that has provided first-camping experiences for many staff and generations of girls, volunteers and leaders. “Our volunteers would hang us up by our thumbs if we ever sold Camp Crowell,” summarizes Meidlinger.
Could that interest decline in another 20-30 years? Possibly. But as far as Meidlinger is concerned, Camp Crowell will be there forever.
The Camp Flying Eagle Fracas
When the Southwest Florida Boy Scout Council received an unsolicited offer of more than $12 million from a Virginia homebuilder for its Camp Flying Eagle property, located on the banks of the Manatee River in Bradenton, Fla., nobody anticipated a community-wide battle.
The camp has a noble and popular history, having hosted Boy Scouts and jamborees for 77 years, but this unsolicited offer immediately polarized the community. Petitions, news articles, editorials and lawsuits have created a Hatfield and McCoy-type atmosphere, and even the county has become involved, actively revising land-use laws to prevent development on the site, against the wishes of the landowners. In the end, the ongoing battle has created, as one paper’s headlines read, “Misadventure.”
Here’s the story…
As word of the unsolicited offer leaked out, tempers immediately ran red-hot. Before Southwest Florida’s council executives could even meet to formally discuss the offer, they were hit with a lawsuit filed by the Manatee County Boys Development Association. The association, which bought the land in 1929, contended it deeded the property to the local Scout council in 1991with the agreement that it never be sold. That stipulation however, was never written into the deed. In 1995 the local council merged with the Southwest Florida council, adding to the confusion.
The Boy Scouts have found an ideological partner in the local Girl Scout council. The Girl Scouts of Gulf Coast Florida, owners of nearby Camp Honi Hanta, are also affected by the county’s ruling and have aligned themselves with the Boy Scouts in considering a counter-suit.
According to both scouting organizations, by restricting the property use to residential, the county has legislated the land “worthless,” in the Scouts’ opinion. The combined scout groups seek either compensation or a reversal of the county’s ruling.
As the process continues to churn forward, the council’s responsibility for serving the changing needs of its scouts appears to be hamstrung by legislation, suits and counter-suits. The irony is the Boy Scouts would actually love to purchase a larger camp — one with the topographical attributes of Camp Flying Eagle — to better serve the boys’ high-adventure needs.
As it now stands, Camp Flying Eagle’s rifle and archery ranges are plunked down in the 165-acre camp, surrounded by housing developments and increasing river traffic. In the council’s mind, property adjacent to a nature preserve or park would better serve its needs, but the price for that type of property is high, both in dollars and community peace.
An article in the 10/31/06 Sarasota Herald Tribune sums up the situation this way: “The county’s handling of the matter hasn’t been ideal …[and] the Scouts council … has alienated many local residents with fond memories of Flying Eagle. … A protracted legal battle isn’t in anyone’s best interests. The money should be spent on the children, not lawyers.”
Meanwhile, the yearlong fight continues.
The Changing Face Of Scouting
As you look around the country, it’s possible all of these real-estate squabbles are really the public manifestation of a more private, more complex issue, namely the changing face of scouting, which may simply be a metaphor for the changing face of camping.
The Girl Scouts of Lake Erie Council in Ohio is but one example. This Ohio council is fundamentally changing the way it operates by joining the national realignment initiative. Its goal is to join with four other councils (Erie Shores in Lorain, Great Trail in Canton, Lake to River in Niles and Western Reserve in Akron) to develop high-capacity, community-based councils that make more effective use of resources, better serve the local community and create more opportunities in scouting for girls. The new council, yet to be officially named, will cross 18 counties and serve 45,000 girls and 15,000 adults.
Zoom out from Ohio, and you’ll discover that, nationally, 312 Girl Scout councils are following the same strategy, leaving 109 large councils in their wake. The hope is that, in the end, this realignment will strengthen the scout structure (by providing economies in staffing and resources), create expanded program areas and, ultimately, re-energize scouting.
The realignment is the result of a two-year national survey of girls and adults to solicit ideas to enhance the future of scouting. The Girl Scout USA Research Center, using the results of the survey, describes the “new normal” scout as one who may be from a variety of ethnic groups and who feels issues of appearance, self-esteem and health are important, and one who is still interested in leadership skills. This definition and input from its constituents will help scout councils develop programs aimed at issues and interests of today’s girl.
Kate Donahue, Communications Officer for the Lake Erie Council, sees the realignment in a positive light. Despite emphasis on new areas such as pod casting, virtual training and safe space on the Internet, traditional camping is not a disappearing activity.
“It’s an integral part of scouting,” says Donahue, and the realignment of councils in Ohio opens each of the state’s camping areas to all girls, regardless of council.
Are the Ohio camps free from development issues and divisive sales offers?
The short answer is no. While not as hot a real-estate area as Florida or metropolitan Washington, D.C., Northeast Ohio is still not free of property concerns.
Currently before the Lake Erie Council is a land-easement proposal with Lake Metroparks to conserve green space at its Camp Lejnar. Lake Metroparks is a political subdivision of the state of Ohio dedicated to preserving natural resources in Lake County. It has entered into agreements with other not-for-profit camps including the Boy Scout Camp Stigwandish, also located in Lake County.
In a series of Dialogue Sessions, the Lake Erie Council engaged various consumer groups in lively and wide-ranging discussions concerning the proposal in which Lake Metroparks agrees to pay a specific sum of money to the Girl Scouts of Lake Erie Council for a promise to maintain a yet-to-be-determined portion of the camp property in its natural state. The easement would be written for perpetuity, and would only limit the council’s right to develop a portion of the property. While the easement could certainly affect the future salability of the property, it is impossible to predict the value of the greenspace to the subsequent purchaser.
At this time the council has support to pursue the offer further.
Lake Metroparks will be invited to the council’s Delegate Assembly to offer members a chance to discuss the issue in person, as well as in break-out sessions that will offer all members the chance to discuss the issue, not just delegates.
The hope is that open and transparent communication will provide a decision that is agreeable (or at least understandable) to all stakeholders.
And this, in the end, is perhaps the biggest lesson learned by camp owners who suddenly find they’re sitting on valuable real estate: remember there is significant emotional attachment to your property, which is what you’ve always wanted. When or if it comes time to sell, clear and open communication is the best way of avoiding acrimonious battles, legal or otherwise.
Linda Stalvey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business who gave up Washington, D.C., public relations to indulge her passion for parks, environment and outdoor activities in Medina, Ohio. You can reach her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.