More than 100 people convened at Colchester High School last Tuesday to learn more about their options as Westbury Park, the state’s second largest mobile home community, goes on the market.
Fans whirled but were no match for the heat of the room and its occupants. Disgruntled and anxious, the attendees fanned themselves with the handouts provided at the door.
“When a park comes up for sale, there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of unknown fear,” Jonathan Bond, Vermont director of the mobile home program through the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, told the crowd. “Our job, through the entire process, is to make sure you as residents know your individual rights as well as know your collective rights as a community.”
The meeting was called after Westbury Park’s owners alerted residents of their intent to sell the 186-acre property for $11.5 million in late July. Per state law, homeowners have 45 days from receipt to decide if they want to purchase the land.
By September 6, residents must gather at least 125 signatures on a petition to either form a cooperative or find a nonprofit to purchase the park, or they can decide to take no action.
Should residents choose to pursue a co-op or nonprofit ownership, they would get 120 days to explore those options. This would allow them to work on their elected option without the threat of a sale until Jan. 4, 2019.
“When you own your home, and you don’t own the land it’s on, you’re at risk,” said Arthur Hamlin, the housing program coordinator for mobile home parks with the Vt. Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
That’s the major reason the state allows mobile home owners the time to look at their options before a possible sale. Bond said each option carries varying degrees of control.
“Co-op is a lot of control, a lot of work. Nonprofit is very little control, not as much work,” he told the crowd.
Tim Palmer, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Foundation Incorporated, said homeowners would be a “step removed” from decisions under a nonprofit’s ownership.
“With us, the decisions are ours, but we make them in collaboration with you,” Palmer said.
If the residents choose to ask a nonprofit to purchase the property, the nonprofit would cover the costs of due diligence efforts, and assume those costs if the sale does not occur Palmer said. Should it obtain the property, the nonprofit would be in charge of its management and maintenance such as plowing and tree trimming, he said.
In a co-op, residents would form a board of directors and make their own decisions with the guidance of the Cooperative Development Institute, according to Andy Danforth, who works with CDI’s New England Resident Owned Communities program, which manages CDI’s cooperative housing programs.
“I bet none of you have probably ever run a park before,” Danforth said. “So we’re here to give you continuous backup.”
He said CDI helps mobile home residents across New England cover the costs of the due diligence period from appraisal, to the engineer’s walkthrough, to attorneys, surveyors and more.
“The process is we can let you see what it’s going to cost without any real obligation,” Danforth said.
He added if the homeowners close these costs would be reflected in their rent; if not, CDI forgives the costs. A share in a CDI-aided co-op would cost Westbury residents $100 and give owners a stake in its operations. Danforth likened the structure to that of a democratic institution with annual elections and budgets and rules voted upon by the residents and their board of directors.
“Instead of you paying the landlord’s mortgage and his profit, you only have to pay your own,” he said.
A question and answer period followed the information session, during which residents expressed their concerns.
“It’s not going to be a mom-and-pop who bid for our park,” one woman said. “I’ll probably more likely guarantee that within the next five to 10 years, if we don’t buy the park sooner or later, it will be developed.”
Bond said the park likely will not close; Hamlin agreed.
“We understand how scary this is,” Hamlin said. “None of us live in your park, and this isn’t happening to us, but we all have a lot of years working with parks around the state.”
In a show of hands, the majority of attendees indicated they preferred to form a co-op.
The next step for residents of Westbury Park, according to Danforth, will be going door-to-door to ensure all homeowners are aware of the petition and to invite those who were not in attendance at the meeting to join the process. Should the document gain 125 signatures and be mailed to the park owners and Katie Buckley, the commissioner at the Vt. Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the next steps will be discussed in meetings with CDI to form the co-op, according to Hamlin.
“This meeting is to give you the right to take away the possibility that someone else might come in and buy the park and close it and develop it,” Hamlin said. “This is your opportunity to do that; that’s what we’re here for.”