The owner of the Richmond trailer park where residents were evicted because of leaking sewage said he hopes a regulatory board will not penalize him for health and safety violations.
Russ Edwards said he plans to tell the Manufactured Housing Board at a hearing Wednesday that he was powerless to fix an overflowing septic pumping station or provide potable water to residents of Meadowbrook Trailer Park because he has no income from the park. He accuses former manager John Wilson, who lives in the park, of not turning over rent payments going back to October.
“He had the money, he was aware of these problems, he should have fixed them,” Edwards said Friday.
Wilson denied the allegations and said Edwards ceased paying him for his work. He said it cost more than $4,000 of his and the other residents’ money to fix the septic station and a leaking water main and to put up the residents at a hotel for one night when they were evicted from the park for about 24 hours on April 24 and 25.
The hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation, 76 Northern Ave. in Gardiner.
Edwards, who lives on Peaks Island, said he can’t afford a lawyer, so he will represent himself at the hearing and present records that he says show his income from the park drying up.
“That’s as far as I can go,” he said.
The board could dismiss the complaints or impose penalties such as fines or suspension or revocation of Edwards’ license to operate the park.
The complaints before the Manufactured Housing Board represent one front on which the situation at Meadowbrook Trailer Park is developing.
The Department of Environmental Protection is considering possible enforcement actions against Edwards for the contamination of a stream by the sewage leak. Residents have talked about filing suit against Edwards for various reasons, such as to cover the cost of repairs. And the residents want to form a cooperative to buy the park from Edwards and run it themselves, though Wilson said Edwards is trying to sell it to a company that operates other mobile home parks in central Maine.
Edwards would not comment on whether he is trying to sell the park or whether he would consider selling to the tenants.
An assistant attorney general assigned to the Manufactured Housing Board will present the state’s case at Wednesday’s hearing, said Doug Dunbar, spokesman for the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. Both Edwards and the state will have the opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence.
The hearing is open to the public, as is the board’s deliberation session. The board could dismiss the complaint, issue a letter of guidance or impose penalties. Fines go up to $1,500 per violation.
The Manufactured Housing Board previously took disciplinary action against Edwards in 2007, when an inspector observed that five vacant and unsecured mobile homes at Meadowbrook posed danger to the health and safety of the public. After failing to secure the homes before a re-inspection, Edwards reached a consent agreement with the board to correct the violations and pay $500 in reimbursement for the cost of disciplinary proceedings.
Mobile home parks must be inspected at least once every four years. The 2010 and 2013 inspections of Meadowbrook turned up violations that were less severe, such as trash on the ground and electrical meters in need of repair, and those were corrected before disciplinary action became necessary. About 25 percent of all inspections lead to citations for violations, Dunbar said.
Dunbar said board staff are not aware of any complaints received from residents of Meadowbrook, though mobile home park residents are allowed to file complaints at any time.
Edwards could also face penalties from the Department of Environmental Protection because sewage from the broken septic pumping station flowed into nearby Mill Brook and contaminated it with E. coli.
The department ordered Edwards to correct the problem. Though the repairs arranged by Meadowbrook residents fixed the sewage leak, the department can still require a plan to prevent future problems and take action against Edwards for the period when the violation was ongoing.
“On a long-term basis, to make sure we don’t get into this situation again, we need a plan in place that’s better than what we had in the past,” environmental specialist Phil Garwood said.
The Department of Environmental Protection can seek a consent agreement with Edwards or take him directly to court. If it goes to court, the penalty for this violation is $100 to $1,000 for each day the department can document the violation.
Garwood said he first observed the illegal discharge from the pumping station on March 27. It was fixed April 25.
All of the pending and potential actions surrounding Meadowbrook could complicate a plan by residents to form a cooperative to buy and operate the park themselves. They are working with the Massachusetts-based organization Cooperative Development Institute, which guides mobile home park residents in this process through their New England Resident-Owned Communities Program.
In a cooperative development, the residents have control, with one vote per household, said Andy Danforth, manager of the program. They set rents and decide how to make improvements with the portion of the rents that goes into a fund for that purpose.
“Some owners are great, they keep things up, they charge fair rent,” Danforth said. “But some don’t keep them up and don’t charge fair rents. Rents go up every year, and it’s not that cheap or easy to move your home.”
The Cooperative Development Institute has helped convert three communities in Maine, including ones in Waldoboro and Brunswick.
Some of the Meadowbrook residents plan to meet with the organization’s cooperative development specialist for Maine, Jessica Pooley, on Sunday to get started by forming a nonprofit organization.
Danforth said Maine is the only state in New England without a law giving mobile home park residents the right to match an offer to buy the park, so there’s little Meadowbrook residents can do if Edwards wants to sell to someone else.
If the residents can come to an agreement with Edwards to buy, the Cooperative Development Institute will send engineers to determine the park’s infrastructure needs. Improvements will be financed, and residents will pay that off over time with their rents. Danforth said his organization continues to advise communities for the length of the mortgage.
Even where the infrastructure improvements are very costly, such as a Massachusetts community that needed $1 million in repairs, rents tend to run only $10 to $15 higher per month than before, Danforth said. There are sometimes rent-to-own agreements for tenants unable to buy, but they don’t get a vote in the co-op.
Danforth said each conversion unfolds differently, but they often have other problems surrounding them. They’ve negotiated short sales, and liens — like the ones Richmond has levied against Edwards for not paying taxes — which are paid off at closing.
“Crises point people toward us,” Danforth said. “When we have somebody who has a great landlord, they’re not going to call me up and say, âI have a great landlord, let’s get rid of them.'”
After a conference call with Danforth last week, Meadowbrook tenants expressed tentative hope for the plan.
“If we can pull this off, I think it’s a great idea,” Stella Trahan said. “It could be wonderful.”