Campers face deadline to leave Lake Erie park

Court decides land owned by township, not nonprofit board

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GIRARD, Pa. -- Every year, the campers at Lake Erie Community Park hold an end-of-summer picnic.

But this year's picnic is the last.

The campers face a Sept. 9 deadline for permanently leaving the 125-acre park that overlooks Lake Erie.

Many of them have gone to the seasonal campground for decades.

"I've seen men and women both cry," said camper Elaine Stirland, 58, who lives in Leechburg with her husband, Ron, 60.

"It's going to be sad," said Elaine Stirland, a retired hospital lab technician.

The campers have known this day would be coming.

In February, an Erie County jury ruled that the park does not belong to the nonprofit park board that has run it as a campground for decades.

The jury found that the park rightfully belongs to Girard Township, which over several years could develop the site with new pavilions, restrooms, hiking trails, a camping area for two-week maximum stays and more, township Supervisor Sandra Anderson said.

Developing the park could cost an estimated $4 million, according to a 2006 master plan for the site, but Ms. Anderson said it would be done in stages with the township seeking state, federal and local grants to help pay for the improvements.

She said the park on Route 5, just west of Route 18, should be enjoyed by more than the people who have paid an annual fee -- $950 this year -- to park their recreational vehicles and set up camp.

"Does that look like a community park? It looks like a campground, a private campground, and it's not," she said.

Park board attorneys had challenged the court decision and sought a new trial.

But they withdrew their request after reaching an agreement with the township that allowed the campers to stay until Sept. 9, said one of the attorneys, Eric Purchase.

The ruling in February allowed the township to take immediate possession, but Ms. Anderson said the township allowed the campers to stay past Labor Day weekend. She said the campers already had paid their fees for the season.

Campers have started to make plans to find another place to call their home away from home. And they said that local businesses will take a financial hit for those who move from Erie County.

Elaine Stirland said the local economy benefited when the campers bought gasoline, groceries, fishing supplies and more.

Stan Sumner, who lives in Girard with his wife, Sharyl, both 63, estimates that more than 20 of their fellow campers have left in the past month or so, leaving about 100 remaining.

Many have gone to a campground in Conneaut, Ohio, that's not on Lake Erie.

"I told my husband, 'I couldn't just sit there and stare at each other,' " Ms. Stirland said.

The Stirlands have reserved a place for next season at the private Pine Lane campground, about 1 mile from Lake Erie Community Park. At least two other campers have left and set up their recreational vehicles at Pine Lane, she said.

"I didn't want to go that far away from the lake," Ms. Stirland said. "I don't feel as displaced as some of the others do."

Pine Lane is not on the lake either, but Ms. Stirland said she and her husband were lucky enough to get a spot with a view of a large pond. And she said she hopes to be able to still take a chair to Lake Erie Community Park and enjoy the sunsets.

The Sumners traded in their 35-foot recreational vehicle for a 21-foot RV, so they could travel around rather than stay in one spot.

But Mr. Sumner, a retired machinist who drives a van for an assisted living community, said it won't be easy to leave the place where he's camped since 1975.

"I doubt if there's another place like it on planet Earth," he said.

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