Archive for Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fate of mobile homes remains in limbo

January 26, 2006

Although the status quo for Baldwin City's five mobile home parks has been the norm for decades, an end is in sight. Whether that comes from action by the Baldwin City Council or pure and simple economics, the hand writing is on the wall.

None of the five mobile home parks adhere to regulations established in the 1960s and '70s. They never have. One of the first limitations is mobile home parks must be five acres. None of the parks are.

But, that's just the start. It became a matter for the council after city inspectors brought problems with the parks to the attention to members. That was last summer. After discussions with mobile home park owners, it was decided to let all parties work through the situation and come to an agreement.

When the item was on the agenda for Monday's meeting, it appeared that time had finally come. It hasn't. After yet another lengthy discussion, council members agreed they didn't have enough information to make a decision.

When push comes to shove, the decision comes down to allowing the parks as legal, nonconfirming uses. That would give the answer for now, but opens yet another can of worms, as pointed out by City Attorney Matt Hoy.

"That's a very significant statement that's never been done and that's why we're here," said Hoy. "It will clarify it.

Mayor Gary Walbridge told council members a decision needs to be made. The biggest concern is the closeness of some of the mobile homes to each other.

"As mayor, I can't vote, but as mayor I am responsible that laws be followed," said Walbridge. "We have to deal with this. We can't leave them in limbo.

"A city cannot allow a fire hazard," he said. "This is what it comes down to with me -- safety. Sooner or later, you've got to draw a line."

That brought an immediate reaction from Walt Myer, owner of one of the mobile home parks that are mostly located in the areas of Second and Third streets and Baker Street.

"Why?" asked Myer. "They've worked this way for 50 years. What has changed?"

"I simply said we need to fix it," said Walbridge. "We need to make a decision and let city staff know what to do."

Staff will seek opinions from the League of Municipalities and others and have that information at the next council meeting. One of the mobile home park owners, Gene Nelson, also a former city councilman who regularly attends all meetings, had provided the council with a detailed account of how the mobile home parks evolved, including votes from current City Council Member Ted Brecheisen, Jr.

"We're trying to be careful and not do what other councils have done and just passed things," said Council Member Nancy Brown in explaining to the park owners why there's another delay.

"Can you have an answer for us by the next council meeting," said Brecheisen to city staff.

City Administrator Jeff Dingman said yes.

Among the many concerns expressed Monday by park owners was that they provided the only affordable housing in the city. Nelson used several examples of people living in the parks that were former employees of the city. His concerns are if the mobile homes are no longer available, these people will have nowhere to go.

"Another woman who lives there, she doesn't have the kind of money to go into a $700, $800 or $900 duplex," said Nelson. "We could be putting these people on the streets."

City staff and council members made it clear that there is no effort to do that, but concerns about safety because of the close proximity of the homes remains.

"It's a tough situation on everyone's part," said Council President Amy Cleavinger. "Maybe we can fix it now, but maybe we can make it work better. I don't think anyone wants to see anyone get hurt by this. I think that affordable housing is a good point. I agree with Tina (city inspector Rakes) about the space between them being alarming."

Rakes had earlier made the point about making people leave.

"No one from staff has ever said anything about someone having to move out of their house," said Rakes, who added later. "I think what's alarming to city staff is we do have encroachments. You can see stories where mobile home parks have been destroyed by fire. It's safety. I care about the people and I care about their safety."

The mobile homes are supposed to be 20 feet apart from side to side and 15 feet apart from head to head. In some instances, those distances are being violated.

Brecheisen praised Nelson's thoroughness.

"I'll just say Gene Nelson did a lot of hard won on this," said Brecheisen. "I think that through the years we just tried to get along and I don't want to put anyone out of business. They've invested a lot of money in our city. I haven't heard one complaint about the trailer parks. I would like to see the city go with Tina's recommendations.

Nelson ended his three-page summation of the history, solutions, etc. which was entitled "expected outcome." Here it is:

"If allowed to continue to provide affordable housing for the time being, we can predict that these mobile home courts will die a natural death in the not too distant future," said Nelson. "There are forces at work that limit their future economic viability. The first of these is that new mobile homes are now much too large to fit on most lots in Baldwin. For that reason, most of the mobile homes in Baldwin are older and continuing to age. These older homes eventually wear out and are too expensive to rebuild, it has grown increasingly difficult to find older replacement units in good condition to move in.

"At the same time, land values in Baldwin continue to increase and before long, commercial and residential zoned land will be too valuable to use as a mobile home court," he said. "If these small courts are allowed to wink out one by one, the stress of the tenants and on the Baldwin economy will be much less. As each court goes, there should be an opportunity for its tenants to relocate in other remaining courts or perhaps by that time in some other form of affordable housing."

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