Joseph Schicker speaking about Camp Skullbones

Joseph Schicker of Dittmer addressed the Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Commission on his concerns about a rezoning proposal that would allow a recreation complex near his home.

A Dittmer man’s attempt to revive a longtime campground as a wedding venue and recreation area will depend on whether the Jefferson County Council approves his rezoning request and development plan.

James Jochens said he bought the former Skullbones Camp, a 22.4-acre property on Skullbones Road about a half-mile from Ficken Road, about four years ago and proceeded with his plans more than a year ago.

The land is zoned large-lot residential and cannot be used for the commercial activities Jochens plans. After he met with planning officials in March, he decided to ask for the land to be rezoned for planned mixed use.

The camp, which went out of business years ago, operated before planning and zoning controls were instituted in Jefferson County.

The Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Commission, which advises the County Council on land-use issues in unincorporated areas, voted 5-1 on May 27 to recommend denial of Jochens’ request.

The County Council, which has the ultimate authority to rezone property, will decide at a future meeting how to proceed with his application.

About 50 people attended the P&Z’s May 27 meeting at the Jefferson County Administration Center in Hillsboro, some of them standing because of limited seating due to COVID-19 precautions.

The county’s planning staff recommended denial of the application, primarily because of the access to the site from Ficken Road, which the county maintains, to Skullbones Road, a private road that travels through a residential neighborhood and through Jochens’ property before ending at two additional homes.

While the application asked that Jochens not be compelled to improve Skullbones Road, David Vonarx of VonArx Engineering of Hillsboro, who represented Jochens at the meeting, said his client would widen it to 20 feet, which would allow two-way traffic.

Vonarx also told commissioners the property is unique because of its history.

“It has a well for an outdoor pool that has been there for years. It has provided a focal point for recreation for a long time. He (Jochens) would essentially operate it as a wedding venue and outdoor recreation complex.”

The site includes three houses, the main one to be used as the wedding venue, as well as a pavilion with a bar, a pool, a site to park recreational vehicles and sand volleyball courts.

Jochens is proposing to build a second pavilion.

Vonarx said only one event would be held at the site at a time so the roads would not be taxed.

About a third of the audience at the meeting said they supported the proposal.

Dennis Wille, who lives in Hoene Springs, said his wife booked the site for a graduation party for his son last year.

“I did not have high expectations for it, but I was blown away,” said Wigge, a police officer. “I didn’t see any issues. He runs a tight ship.”

Sarah Borley of Catawissa said she booked her daughter’s graduation party there and has returned for other functions.

“My husband and I have stayed on the property several times,” she said. “I hate for this not to be a place for families. There isn’t anything like this in this area, and it will bring in tax revenue.”

Skullbones Road, she said, “is really no different from other roads out there.”

Three neighbors spoke against the proposal.

Beau Govreau, who owns property next to Skullbones Camp, echoed the planning staff’s concern about the condition of Skullbones Road and criticized Jochens for starting commercial operations without having proper authority.

“He’s asking for everything, and he’s asking not to do anything,” Govreau said. “None of us need this or want this. Mr. Jochens has already shown he doesn’t abide by the rules. It’s not a good fit for the area.”

Vonarx said Jochens has a business license and a liquor license, both issued by the county.

Joseph Schicker, who lives in one of the two homes at the south end of Skullbones Road, said he was worried about traffic at the business making it difficult for him to come and go from his home.

Schicker said he served 31 years in the Green Berets and has Parkinson’s disease as a result of concussions suffered in combat.

“I’m really worried about getting an ambulance back there,” he said. “I’ve been stuck on the road while somebody (looked for) the keys (to a parked car) so I could get to my house.”

Nellie Odle, who also lives at the end of Skullbones Road, said she had the same concerns about her disabled husband.

“We bought this property two years ago. There was nothing going on around here, and we were OK with that,” she said. “Now, cars come in and turn around in our field and some have come up close to our house.”

Planning commissioner Danny Tuggle cast the sole vote against recommending denial of Jochens’ application. He earlier had made a motion to approve the request, but it died for lack of a second.

“What I heard is that what he (Jochens) really needed to do was improve the road, and he said he would do that. That’s what the county needs and wants. If he agreed to do that, why wouldn’t it pass? I think the county needs more parks and recreation areas.”

Vonarx said he didn’t know what Jochens would do if the County Council turns down the application.

“I’ll have to sit down with my client and we’ll talk about our options at that point,” Vonarx said.