This Land is Our Land: S. Jaquelyn Rieke and the Future of Onion River Campground

by M. Brianna Stallings

PLAINFIELD — Entrepreneur S. Jaquelyn Rieke wears a lot of hats in the Vermont community. A chocolatier and granola maker, she founded her best-known business, Nutty Steph’s (based in Middlesex) in 2003. Rieke then purchased the 23 acres that comprise Onion River Campground in 2012, where she is the operator. Currently, seven of the property’s acres are devoted to camping facilities.

Located on U.S. Route 2 in Marshfield, the campground welcomes campers of all stripes, ranging from weekend guests in tents, pop-ups and fifth wheels to season-long guests in 40-foot-long Class A motor homes equipped with satellite TV and multiple pop-outs for additional space. Roughly a quarter of the sites provide full hook-ups (electric, water and sewer). A dump station is available at the public bath house for everyone else.

Over the years, Rieke began hosting private events at Onion River Campground such as weddings and the free community festival “Weirdofest.” Now Rieke hopes to take the campground to the next level by also hosting public events.

A public hearing on her permit request was held by the Marshfield Development Review Board at the Old Schoolhouse on Thursday, June 8. The hearing was to address the request for a site plan review and conditional use permit made by Rieke on behalf of El Nomano LLC, the corporate entity that owns the campground. Rieke’s permit request suggested the maximum possible number of events (10) for the campground season, which runs from May to October, and the maximum attendance capacity for each event (600 people). Copies of the permit application are on file in the office of the Marshfield Town Clerk on School Street.

In addition to her desire to host more events on the grounds, such as music festivals and weddings (including her own), Rieke’s long-term goals include the development of a large-scale public botanical garden on the site.

Hearing participants included Rieke; Development Review Board Chairman and town health officer James Arisman; board members Gary Leach, Jenny Warshow and Les Snow; witness and Marshfield zoning administrator Robert Light; and campground neighbors Jen and Rebecca Shadney. Community member Robin Schunk was also in attendance.

Arisman opened the floor to Light, asking him to put on the record how the matter came before the Board. “Jaquelyn purchased the campground in 2012 and started to hold some events there,” Light said. “I heard about them, so Jaquelyn and I talked about these events needing to have conditional use and site plan review permits.”

Following Light’s remarks, Arisman disclosed a personal connection with Rieke (who acted as a sponsor for Arisman’s son’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail), then stated that the distant affiliation would not change any decisions he made in the matter. Arisman then made sure to address one of the main reasons for Rieke’s permit request — namely, the “Onion River Music Campout,” a two-day event to be held the following day, Friday, June 9 and Saturday, June 10 at the campgrounds and presented by an outside third party. The two-day family-friendly festival was to feature an assortment of local and national bands, local food trucks, vendors, a beer garden and more.

Arisman stated that the Music Campout was “an unpermitted event.” Because the hearing was being held just one day before the start of the Music Campout, Arisman proposed that whatever decision the board made with regard to conditions be deferred until after the coming weekend.

During her testimony before the select board, Rieke said that she envisions around five to 10 events per season, but “since it is pertinent to the town that we define it as up to 10, that would be sufficient for now.” She added, “We like to have a lot of weekends open for campers, so we aren’t looking to be an event factory. We would usually have events in the one- to 300-person range, but I set a 600-person cap because, again, I want to identify the cap so that the town and any relevant parties would have a sense of the maximums that could be expected.”

“We’re a small community; we want the people of the community to come together,” Rieke continued. “To gather a small amount of people, I find that very gratifying. I find that it energizes the community a lot. The weddings also enrich our capacity to even exist in terms of the financial gain.”

Arisman then opened the floor to questions. Board member Gary Leach presented a question to zoning administrator Robert Light: “How do we know that these events require something other than the current usage of this property, which is commercial recreation?” “It’s not enough to say that a piece of property is commercial and therefore you can run any commercial operation you want to under that umbrella,” Light replied.

After Leach inquired about how the new use of the property would be described (“campground with events”), Light and Rieke each went on to describe what characteristics would define Onion River Campground as such, including the number of people on site and noise amplification. “If you have 40 campers down there your noise level is one thing,” Light said. “If you’ve got 600 people at an event, the noise level is a different thing.”

Another aspect that would be considered a change in use would be “a change in the rural character of the area,” Light added. “I would say that a lazy campground, which Onion River Campground is, has a nice river. It’s a nice setting. It’s not anything that’s unpleasant to look at. If you start to have bands up there and big amplifiers and parking, cars and people all over the place, to me that changes the rural character.”

Leach then made sure to address the fact that the town of Marshfield does not require a permit for an event. “I come to the Board for each event and the Board always says, ‘There’s no review needed for events,’” Rieke said. “But I think when it’s systematic and it’s commercial, it kind of makes sense to me that it’s another business.” Rieke added that, “including exactly what I need to do as that business is critical for compliance.”

Community members Jen and Rebecca Shadney (daughter and mother) have property that abuts Onion River Campground. During the meeting both women spoke of concerns about possible stragglers wandering away from large-scale events like the Music Campout and onto their land. Nevertheless, Jen Shadney went on to say that she feels events of this nature would be good for the economic development of Marshfield.

Rather than approving Rieke’s permit request, Development Board members instead agreed to use the Music Campout as a test event. They would see how it went in terms of attendance, traffic, health and safety, then determine how to proceed. Rieke encouraged board members to visit the Music Campout to see the event.

Event organizers brought in the services of Chocolate Thunder Security to insure that the Campout weekend ran smoothly and safely. A list of items not permitted on festival property (such as glass, weapons and fireworks) was made available online at musicvermont.com.

To avoid vehicular congestion at the campground, only vendors and artists were allowed to park on the property. Attendees were asked to park at Twinfield Union School, then walk back down to the campground for the festival. In the interest of public safety, those folks who did park at the camp site were only allowed to leave via their vehicles between 6:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.

When asked on Sunday, June 11 for a final tally of attendants at the Music Campout, the festival promoter estimated that upwards of 300 people attended the event over its two-day run.

A follow-up meeting by the Marshfield Development Review Board is scheduled for Thursday, July 13 at 7:15 p.m. Onion River Campground’s next large-scale public event will be the “Old Time on the Onion: A Fiddler’s Gathering,” to be held July 14 and 15; followed by the free community event, the Third Annual “Weirdofest” on August 19.

M. Brianna Stallings is a writer and MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently at work on her first book. Full disclosure: In addition to being a journalist, the author is also a resident of Onion River Campground.