GARDINER — The future is uncertain for residents of a mobile home park whose owner is losing his license and is trying to sell the park, setting up their potential eviction.
“It’s very vague for us all,” said Stella Trahan, who has lived in Meadowbrook Trailer Park since August. “No matter my personal feelings about anybody, us as tenants have been caught in the middle, and it would be nice to get that resolved for us.”
The Manufactured Housing Board took the rare step Wednesday of revoking owner Russ Edwards’ license to operate the mobile home park, which is in Richmond. The board’s executive director, Bob LeClair, said no park owner’s license has been suspended or revoked since he started in his job in 2000.
Edwards intends to sell Meadowbrook to Double Eagle Parks, a company with 15 parks in central Maine. Closing on the deal could take place as soon as next week, and Double Eagle owner Rick Breton said the improvements necessary to relicense the park will take about 30 days and probably will force the tenants out of their homes.
A group of tenants, newly incorporated under the name Water’s Edge at Richmond, will try to block the sale and buy the park to run as a co-op. They’ll argue that they should have the chance to match Breton’s offer because an officer of the group, resident and former park manager John Wilson, was in discussion with Edwards last fall about buying Meadowbrook.
The tenants welcomed the Manufactured Housing Board’s unanimous decision Wednesday, following a public hearing, to revoke Edwards’ license.
Board members chastised Edwards for his poor management of the park, stretching back to the early 1990s and culminating this spring in health and safety violations that led to the hearing.
Theresa Desfosses, who represents mobile home builders on the board, made the motion to take Edwards’ license and fine him $1,500, the maximum penalty, for each of the three violations.
“I’m totally embarrassed that you’re a member, that you’re a part of this industry at all,” she said. “You would let people live in your community without water, with raw sewerage, no matter whose problem it is.”
Board members said they believed Edwards would never tolerate such poor living conditions for himself and that they wanted to send a message that they’re serious about protecting the health and safety of tenants.
Edwards was cited for three violations: a vacant trailer that’s unsecured, a broken septic pumping station that had overflowing sewage and his failure to provide potable water for the residents when the Richmond Utilities District shut off the tap for fear the leaking sewage would contaminate the town’s water supply.
The vacant trailer is still unsecured, but Wilson and other tenants arranged for repairs to the pumping station and a broken water main two weeks ago. Residents were evicted from Meadowbrook for about 24 hours because of the lack of water.
Edwards admitted to the violations but said he’s not to blame.
He said his only defense was that Wilson denied him income from the park by withholding tenants’ rent payments, and therefore he could not afford the park’s upkeep.
“I know that legally, technically, I’m responsible,” Edwards told the board at the end of the hearing. “But I also hope I’m in a practical world where people can understand there are things that are fiscally impossible.”
Edwards said after the board’s decision that they seemed narrowly focused on regulations rather than the real-world circumstances that prevented him from fixing problems in Meadowbrook.
Wilson said it was frustrating to listen to Edwards make accusations against him without having the opportunity to respond during the hearing, but he felt vindicated by testimony that problems in Meadowbrook date back to long before he arrived last year.
LeClair testified that Meadowbrook has failed every inspection since Edwards became the owner. Starting in 1990, the same sorts of violations appeared again and again — both nuisances such as trash on the ground and serious hazards such as unprotected electrical conductors that could electrocute someone. LeClair said it’s typical for parks to show improvement on successive inspections under the same ownership, but that has not happened in Meadowbrook.
“My opinion, looking at these inspection reports, nothing in that community was repaired unless it was cited on an order of correction by us,” LeClair said. “And that goes for every electrical problem.”
LeClair said the tenants should not have to worry about health and safety hazards or whether they’re going to have water available to drink or use for cooking and bathing.
“The history of this park, the current condition of this park, I would recommend to the board that their license be revoked,” he said. “Close the park right down.”
Housing Board Inspector Ryan Chandler outlined several ongoing violations, documented last week, that he said have not resulted in complaints yet but will soon.
They include several junk piles around the park, a broken window in one trailer and glass on the ground, an uninsulated septic line that could freeze and a utility pole that’s leaning over.
Edwards also faces potential penalties from the Department of Environmental Protection because the leaking sewage flowed into Mill Brook and contaminated it with E. coli.
Edwards represented himself at the hearing, and his only other witness was Breton, who testified about his plans for Meadowbrook.
Breton said his company, Colonial Pines LLC, is under contract to buy the park from Edwards and scheduled to complete the deal May 16. Breton said his company would pay Edwards’ past due utilities bill, mortgage and the liens against the property as part of the purchase.
Breton said he would apply immediately for a license to operate the park, but it will take about a month to correct violations there and bring all the homes up to code, so the tenants would have to move out in the meantime.
He said he took over management of the park Monday and already began grading the dirt roads to fill in deep potholes. He said he plans to put down concrete slabs on all 39 lots on the property, new electrical lines and panels and new landscaping and trees; and to renovate the interiors of the homes.
“It’s a mess,” Breton said. “Bad management, bad ownership, whatever you guys want to call it. But it’s a great town for manufactured housing.”
LeClair said he won’t consider an application for a new license for the park until he sees an engineering study stating that all of the infrastructure can support 39 homes.
Manufactured Housing Board members expressed concern about the potential for evictions and wondered how they could prevent them but concluded that it’s outside their realm of responsibility.
“Anything that the board does doesn’t affect whether they are evicted or not evicted,” said Harvey Wallingford, who represents large park owners on the board.
Trahan said having to relocate would be a great hardship for her. She moved to Richmond to care for her mother, who has Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
Trahan is one of the officers of Water’s Edge at Richmond, and she said she’s still hopeful that the tenants group can buy the park.
“I believe that ownership adds value,” Trahan said. “I believe that people take care of things they own better than things that they don’t. I believe that it would be good to give back to Richmond and the community, to have a place that’s no longer a headache or an eyesore.”
Wilson said the group is working with a lawyer to file an injunction in Sagadahoc County to block the sale to Breton’s company.
They’ve also sought the help of the Cooperative Development Institute, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that has helped tenants of mobile home parks around New England to buy their parks to run as cooperatives. They’ve ushered three parks in Maine through that process.
Jessica Pooley, the cooperative development specialist for Maine, said they will go to court with the tenants to help explain what they want to do. The organization would help secure financing for the purchase, which residents would pay off through slightly increased rents.
“All we need is a window of time to see if it’s feasible for them to purchase it,” she said.
Unlike many other states, Maine doesn’t guarantee mobile home park residents the chance to match an offer to buy their park. Pooley said Edwards’ statement in Wednesday’s hearing that he considered selling to Wilson last fall may help.
Edwards says, however, that they never had a contract and Wilson didn’t follow through.
Even if the Richmond tenants are unsuccessful, Pooley said she hopes their situation will lead to changes giving tenants the right to buy.
“I hope if nothing else, this will draw attention to that and maybe change some rules to allow tenants that right,” she said. “Landlords get the same fair market value either way. A buyer’s a buyer.”