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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Owasippe Scout Reservation 'Safer': Judge Upholds Township Zoning In $19 M Chicago Area Council Lawsuit


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Judge upholds Blue Lake Township Zoning Ordinance, Chicago Area Council says it plans to file an appeal. OOEC says it will announce a counter-purchase offer to continue Owasippe operations within the context of the zoning in place.

To keep this long story short, the professional scouters and perhaps some volunteer scouters, decided that it was too expensive to keep operating one of the oldest scout camps in America, The Owasippe Scout Reservation located near Whitehall, Michigan.

The Chicago Area Council applied for a variance in the zoning that to allow them to sell at least some of the Owasippe land for residential development but Blue Lake Township, Michigan, denied the variance, triggering a lawsuit which was decided this week in favor of the Township and all those who did not want the Chicago Area Council of the Boy Scouts (the professionals) to sell the land. For a better explanation, see the story in the MLive.com account.

The issue for Chicago Volunteer Scouters was huge, Owasippe, established in 1911, the nation's premiere Boy Scout Camp Reservation, had been put on the slab despite wishes to the contrary of most of the volunteer scouters (read members and leaders) present and past. Most active in the outcry were current active unit leaders and members of the Owasippe Staff Organization (OSA) some of whom founded the OOEC the Owasippe Outdoor Education Center which has been actively raising money and gathering partners to purchase the property for continued use as a camping and high adventure facility which would still be accessible to Chicago Scouts as well as many other organizations.

For Blue Lake Township, the victory was significant because it confirmed their right to control long-term zoning in relationship to their master plan. Conflict on this issue is something that often plagues small townships and so this court decision is meaningful beyond the scope of its meaning to the Boy Scouts. Often real estate or other commercial interests that do not have the long term interests of a community in mind attempt to force changes in zoning to their short-term benefit that are not consistent with the long-term goals of the community. As ruled, this case gives communities more strength to support the strength of zoning based on their master plan. It also means that unless they lose on appeal, they will not have to pay significant court costs and attorneys fees.

The press account suggests that the case will be appealed. I am not a lawyer, though I have played one on the stage as well as a solicitor, and a barrister who happened to be a Q.C., so I really can't fill you in on all the legal implications on what might or might happen, but here's what I think. 

I read the opinions online and it was hard for me to find errors on which to base an appeal. That is what appeals are based on, some error by the judge either in procedure or in the law. Both sides had no quibbles with the judge outstanding before the final judgement of the case, so it will be hard to see on what basis the claim with be, possibly just a rehash of the case, but usually it should be based on some error of the judge and not just a disagreement over the facts. But lawyers bill by the hours, so....

On a more personal basis, I think that the local Scout Office erred in trying to sell the land in the first place. As a former registered member for many years, a six-summer Owasippe camp staff attendee, a camp staff member for two summers, and now a lifetime member of the Owasippe Staff Association (but not an investor in the EEOC), I was a direct beneficiary of all the wealth of earth and heaven found at the Owasippe Scout Reservation.

The land is beautiful and lovely. The lakes and rivers are clean and fresh. There is wildlife aplenty to see and be near. There is plenty of acreage to get lost on if you are not careful, and room enough for a 50 mile canoe trip with a campsite near an 'Indian Burial Ground' with phosphor glowing stumps and stars racing across the night sky in August where you can sometimes also see the Northern Lights.

I'll never forget the night I was out on an individual overnight camping experience under the stars and I happened to get one of the nights of the August meteor showers. How beautiful and majestic and humbling it was. The stars fell in such thin pinstripes across the sky, silent and straight as if they were passing through rather than falling down. It was hours of reminders of how small we were in the universe. What is an experience like that worth, one he will never forget, to a Chicago boy who goes months without seeing the stars?

I also worked for the Boy Scouts for a time. Professional Scouters get a lot of training, more training than in almost any career than teaching or the military I think, because scouting sees itself first as an educational organization rather than a camping organization. I think that is the source of the tension between the volunteer scouters and the professionals in this situation. The Scout Executive probably sees large numbers of kids who will never be able to go to camp who scouting can at least provide some good leadership training without a summer camp in Michigan, whereas the bulk of the long term volunteers see the long term summer camp as the reason to be scouters in the first place.

Culturally, there is a whole family of Owasippe. I do mean family. The camp has made many marriages, yep, they have girls working at the family camp, camp Reneker, that is one of the section camps, and once in a blue moon, a girl has been on the staff of one of the section camps of Owasippe. (Owasippe is set up as a number of section camps each of which can handle a fair number of troops or Explorer Posts so that between the section camps, Family Camp at Reneker and the high adventure camp, total summer attendance is in the thousands, though lower than in the 70's and in the 80's.

A point the CAC makes is that there are fewer young kids right now than before. This however is a short term point of view. We don't ever make any more property, especially this kind of pristine, undeveloped wilderness/forest and lakes. Population in America continues to grow. Yes we had a kid slack-off because the baby boom got older. But guess what, their kids are starting to have kids and so forth. The numbers are starting to climb back up. Absent a plague, act of war, famine, or other disaster, odds are that very soon the demand for camping facilities will be very much higher 10 years from now.

But the trend in Boy Scout Councils across the country has apparently to get rid of these old-fashioned troublesome camp properties. There is a little bubble that the exec's wind up in, its almost impossible to avoid, I know, I wound up in it for awhile. You get caught dancing to the tune of the national Chief Scout Executive in Dallas who wants to make his mark on Scouting. The first thing they do is issue a new Boy Scout Handbook. Just see if it isn't so.

When I got a tour of the National Offices For NEI training, I actually got to walk into his office and sit in his chair. Nice view. Lots of wide open space. Encourages big thinking. Trend setting. And so down the line over the years have come some good and not so good programs and fads.

Tiger Cubs - great program! Get those second graders in with their family members and you have the inside edge on new Cub Scout Leaders! And the stickers are cute!

Those belt loop awards - eh, could have been worse.

Membership restriction - whatever the intent - disaster. Now there is the reason you have declining fall in use of your summer camp. Don't go pointing fingers at a declining interest in camping. 

This issue is a thorny one. Boy Scout units don't belong to the National BSA, they belong to the sponsoring organization or Chartered Partners who sponsor them. A very large number of the Boy Scout chartered partners are Churches. A little known fact is that Scouting is the official youth program of the Mormon Church. Interesting side note, LDS units have a rule that all weekend camping trips roll up and head home before midnight on Saturday. 

As a result of all this sponsorship by churches of all kinds, the National Office may be afraid not to continue the insistence that the Boy Scouts of America hold the line on its members express a belief in God (no atheists). Once this got to be a point of contention, this meant that the ACLU started attacking any civic organization sponsoring a Boy Scout unit.

So if the CAC has a camp operating revenue problem, it should not blame it on the camp. That is more than a little unfair. Instead what the council should be doing is thinking strategically about how to endow the camp so that its operations are covered in perpetuity and it is operating off of the interest of its endowments.

But the national scouting trend seems to be to dump these inconvenient little properties. That's just too bad. Well Owasippe is not some little 20 acre council property in Ohio. Owasippe is 4,800 acres of forests and rivers adjacent to some National Forest that is accessible for hiking and camping as well. Making the entire experience a grand one.

From camping merit badge, to swimming, through scout lifeguard, from archery through rifle and shotgun shooting, from ecology to pioneering, cooking to orienteering, even horsemanship can be obtained at Owasippe. Some of these merit badges are required to make Eagle.

And that is why you need a summer camp.  In an urban area like Chicago, just where is someone going to get camping, cooking, swimming, and lifesaving merit badges in a fairly short order? Even in two summers?

Well, that's my rant. For more, follow the links above.

Peter, Chief Editor and Spelling Wrecker
The Peter Files Blog of Comedy, Satire and Commentary

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