Campgrounds located south of Columbus are soon closing while the property owner works with a South Dakota-based engineer on formulating a plan that lays out procedures, rules and other details for the recreational area.
Lance Lehr, owner of T-Bone Truck Stop and Bonfire LLC, earlier this week was scheduled to go before the planning commission to seek a special use permit that would allow him to operate camping grounds in a commercially zoned area. Lehr, however, pulled the item from the planning commission agenda because of fear that the application would be denied.
Those utilizing the campgrounds located just west of the U.S. Highway 81/30 junction have until Wednesday, July 17, to clear their property.
“Or I will take down a loader and remove it for them,” Lehr said.
City staff made the recommendation to the planning commission that Lehr’s request for a special use permit be denied on the grounds that no set-in-stone plan regarding operation of the campgrounds was submitted, along with Lehr not cooperating with the City of Columbus regarding moving people off the land and clearing the space, according to City Administrator Tara Vasicek.
“For a number of years Mr. Lehr has allowed people to camp on that ground and he has never gone through with the process of creating a campground according to the rules …,” Vasicek said. “To run a campground in that zoning district you have to get a special use permit and Mr. Lehr never has applied – this is the first time that he has applied for a special use permit in all of the years that we have been asking him to do so."
Lehr said that he purchased the property in 2016 and that people from Platte County, Omaha and Lincoln have been enjoying recreational fun at the Bonfire Campgrounds ever since.
“We have about 30 plots down there, but there is room for many, many more,” Lehr said. “A lot of people come from Omaha and Lincoln and bring their four-wheelers and campers.”
The applicant said that earlier this week after pulling his request from the planning commission agenda he proceeded to contact the engineer to lay out a specific camping plan. He added that he was told formulating a plan should be “pretty darn simple and he thinks he can have it done in a week or so.”
The reason he pulled his initial request, Lehr said, is because he could sense all of the “negativity” in the air and was sure it wouldn’t pass. Vasicek said that the city has been going back and forth with Lehr since the land was acquired and that it’s simply an issue of him making a plan and enforcing the laid out rules.
The property, Vasicek added, is in a floodway and floodplain – directly located on the Loup River – which has been a big red flag. She added, though, that Lehr had a topographic survey done within the past year as set forth by the city.
“That is one of the most concerning (issues) to the city because it could be a life/safety issue,” Vasicek said.
Although Lehr is now in the process of having an engineer formulate a camping procedure plan, he nor the City of Columbus are on the same page about why the entire process has been so burdensome.
Lehr said that city officials haven’t been clear about what they want out of his campground from the start – what he calls lots of gray areas.
“It would be like if you were driving down the road and got pulled over by a state trooper, and he said, 'you were going too fast,'” Lehr said. “But then you say, ‘how fast,’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, it varies among our patrol, I just thought you were going too fast.'”
Essentially, he said, it hasn’t been clear what he needs to do to be in city compliance and that there has also been a lot of variances.
Vasicek, though, said that city officials have been totally clear about what they expect out of Lehr and the campgrounds he owns.
“He could operate a campground down there if he put a plan together and applied for the special use permit,” Vasicek said. “The problem that the planning commission saw, and that our staff has been experiencing for years, was that Mr. Lehr won’t give us the conditions that he’s willing to enforce on the campgrounds."
Since the item was pulled from the agenda Lehr will have the opportunity to come before the planning commission again – if it was denied he would have had to wait multiple months before resubmitting his application. If approved by the planning commission, the item would then go before the Columbus City Council for final approval or denial.
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.