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Starks couple hopes to turn alpaca farm into wilderness campground

Kendall Hanna and Marie Ring moved to Starks in 2010 and opened Sandy River Alpacas, as a way to escape the hubbub of life in busier areas on the midcoast.

STARKS, Maine — Kendall Hanna and Marie Ring have been together for 22 years, married to each other for three years of that time. From an outside perspective, their bond is undeniable, and their teamwork is enviable -- important qualities, considering what these two do for a living.

In 2010, Hanna and Ring decided to move from Brunswick to Starks, a town that has fewer than a thousand people and is perched amidst rolling hills, now dappled with autumn colors. This is where Hanna and Ring have been running Sandy River Alpacas on 40 acres of land for more than two decades, tending to 13 of these curious animals during the day -- and taking on night shifts as nurses a few days a week. 

For them, a big appeal of this change of pace in life has been leaving behind the hubbub of bigger towns and cities. They started out breeding alpacas and then made the shift to shearing and hosting weddings and events. 

"It's just peace and quiet," Ring said, peering over the tranquil Sandy River waters lining their property. "It's so relaxing. It's just so different."

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When they first met, Hanna and Ring were avid campers -- and they want to use that former pastime to help tourists experience the quieter way of life. The couple has been working with the town's planning board to get approval for an eight-site wilderness campground. The plan is to make sure all tent sites have platforms -- and eventually, three of them will support a "glamping" style of the activity.

"The camping and RVing is becoming so popular -- that's technically what led us to say, 'Maybe we need to start a campground here,'" Hannah explained, noting during the pandemic, they began hosting RVers through a program called Harvest Hosts -- and realized how popular the alpacas are among visitors.  

"Folks are looking more for the tranquil and peaceful, versus commercialized and all the hubbub," Hanna added.

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The couple is well on their way to making the campground vision a reality. Last week, the town planning board approved their applications for site plan review ordinance and shore-land zoning ordinance permits. Now, Hanna and Ring need to get a building permit, septic approval, and permits from the Department of Health and Human Services before the town makes a final decision about approval on October 20. 

Gwen Hilton, the chair of the town planning board, says an attraction like this would be "pretty unique" to the area -- and could bring in new visitors. 

"I think it's important that people know their state and rural parts of their state and appreciate what we have in Maine," Hilton said about attractions like this proposed campground. "I think they're more likely to care about taking care of (our state)."

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Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, says the trend of creating unique attractions for tourists has been growing over the past few years in our state. In some ways, there's a push to try to lure people to more rural parts of the state where they may not initially think to visit. 

"Having a balance and having people be able to be exposed to more opportunities that Maine has to offer makes us just a better destination as a whole," Cameron expressed. "It gives more opportunity for more people to do more things -- and so getting people exposed to more rural destinations is absolutely critical to the sustainability of our industry."

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Hanna and Ring are hoping to open to campers by May of 2022.