City buys non-compliant mobile home park

Council approves $730K net cost; tenants have 18 months to relocate

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King Mobile Home Park has never been in compliance with city codes.

That’s the assessment of Kilgore City Manager Josh Selleck who, on Tuesday, laid out a case for purchasing the site outright rather than risking an expensive, lengthy court battle that might fail despite the evidence of city records.

Council members backed the proposal without question this week. After their unanimous vote Nov. 13, accounting for $730,000 in net expense from reserves, City Hall completed its agreement with the park’s owners Friday and will move forward with a plan to shutter the delinquent development over the course of the next 18 months.

The tenants in the park – there are 63 mobile homes currently on the books – have a year-and-a-half to find new accommodations, and Selleck said the city aims to do what it can to help them relocate.

Beyond that, he had no definite answer. The ultimate future of the 10.6-acre property is in limbo while City Hall focuses on addressing the park’s conditions and assisting its residents with finding a new home.

Kilgore Special Services Director B.J. Owen will oversee the operation of the mobile home park for the immediate future, and community meetings are being scheduled to update tenants on developing plans for the months ahead.

Questions about the park should be directed to Kilgore City Hall, 903-984-5081. Residents will be provided an on-call number.

“We will be working with the tenants. These tenants are our residents, they’re our citizens, they’re voters, they live here and they’re valuable members of our community,” he told council members Tuesday, “but the conditions of the park are unsafe.”

It’s taken almost 50 years for City of Kilgore officials to take action on the site at 412 Fritz-Swanson Road.

“We do not believe that the park ever fully-complied with the zoning process,” Selleck reminded council members Tuesday, repeating information already shared with the group in closed session.

This week’s meeting was the first time the council has addressed the issue in an open meeting since May, when threat of legal action by the park’s owners – opposing proposed restrictions on manufactured housing here – pushed discussions behind closed doors.

Neither the King family nor the attorney behind May’s letter, Bill McLean of Austin’s McLean & Howard Law, could be reached for comment this week. No representatives of either were in the audience Tuesday night.

According to Selleck, King’s Mobile Home Park has been that in name-only since its inception in the early 1970s.

“In 1971, the city – faced with this new housing style – began to adopt some regulations. They adopted regulations about where mobile homes could go and specifically they adopted regulations about mobile home parks and what they needed to look like,” he said. “The park began the process of applying for the new zoning category that the city had created in 1971.

“They made it partway through the process. From what we can tell, it appeared to be a relatively-political process.”

There’s been an extensive review of city records, spurred by a broad Public Information Act request by the park’s operators. From it, city staffers noted “multiple warnings issued throughout the process” by city officials to see it through to completion.

“The city was still feeling out its way and the park had a number of starts and stops,” Selleck said. “The process that was required was to obtain commercial zoning and then to acquire a Special Use Permit, which is a zoning tool necessary to actually authorize this specific use on the property.

“In addition to that the process was never platted, and none of the legal processes that were in place at the time do we believe were completed.”

For months, Selleck’s been fielding questions about the park and the looming purchase.

“Well, why are you dealing with it now? That was 1971, it’s happened all this time.”

According to Selleck, this week’s action was the culmination of about three years of wrangling.

The King family – out-of-towners who have owned the park from the beginning – had a buyer interested in the property. “What we asked them to do was to come into compliance with current code,” Selleck recounted. “We worked with that buyer diligently. We spent hundreds of hours, I would say, at the staff level to educate them about what was necessary.”

Key items on the task list included paving the private road that serves the park, installing an adequate water system, repairing or replacing the sewer system, providing fire hydrants for fire protection and spacing the trailers out for safety.

“After working with the first buyer it was determined by the buyer that the project was not financially feasible and that buyer walked away. You heard from the owner of the property shortly after that.”

John King, a Longview resident, railed against the city during a public hearing on a new zoning overlay in March 2017. He alleged prospective buyers for the mobile home park had been run-off by city staffers.

A subsequent prospect also walked away from the park, Selleck confirmed Tuesday.

“That buyer also, after working with the city, determined that it was not financially-feasible to repair all of the infrastructure based on its existing state, to move all of the trailers and to go through the process,” he said.

The city’s extensive records-review related to the mobile home park was completed about the same time, encompassing 10 years of council minutes, Planning & Zoning documents and “every filing cabinet in City Hall” to track down the park’s paper trail.

It confirmed, Selleck says, the park was never legal according to old codes and new.

“After that process we were even more secured that this property would be required to comply with current zoning requirements and would need to go through a new zoning process,” he continued. “However, the seller and their prospective buyers indicated unwillingness to comply with our current zoning code or our property maintenance code. By the end, they were refusing to not only comply with our current zoning code but were even beginning to argue that they weren’t held accountable to the 1971 code.

“At this point we realized we were at an impasse.”

May’s letter from McClean underscored the end of negotiations to bring the park into compliance through the operators.

“Faced with that, and their overt indication that they intended to sue if we did not relinquish and allow them to move forward with their mobile home park with no standards, no zoning, no property maintenance,” Selleck said, “we kind of stopped for a moment and started talking with you about a cost/benefit analysis on this and about what it would cost to fight them now that they had the lobby attorneys, likely paid for outside, within their grasp.

“The buyers want to sell it as a mobile home park, which it is not legally. When faced with that fact, the buyers are unwilling to relinquish and they have forced the issue, which forces our compliance and forces us to hold them accountable to our codes.”

Considering all the aspects, he added, there was a good chance a prolonged and expensive court battle would end up before the Texas Supreme Court.

“The cost of that battle would cost much in excess of the purchase price or the value of the property.”

Wednesday’s deal includes a purchase price of $750,000 for the park. Tuesday’s budget amendment – covering the next 10 months for Fiscal Year 2019 – factored in $130,000 in related expenses at the park offset by an estimated $150,000 in rental revenue.

Based on our current revenues, we see about $15,000 a month coming in. Over the last year, as we’ve worked through the process with the owners, they’ve removed some of the worst mobile homes,” Selleck noted. “We believe at the beginning of this process they had around 70. The count in terms of the rent-rolls today is 63 with a few of them not occupied and not occupiable.”

As the city operates the park for up to 18 months, he said, staffers will address at least some of its faults for residents’ sake.

For example, “Currently, the utilities for the property we believe to be in poorly-maintained condition, specifically the water side,” he said, noting a $70,000 budget for water utilities in the overall plan. Contractors will have to be brought in for some projects. “We know that there are exposed sewer lines – in some cases open sewer lines – that need repair.”

Also under contracted services, Selleck noted, work at the park will, at times, require hiring a translator in order to ensure residents get an accurate, transparent understanding of what’s underway.

“As our surveyor noted, the roadway through there is a private road that has not been maintained,” Selleck said, “and while our period of operations is to be limited, we think that it’s our responsibility to at least go ahead and at least to put temporary patches on that as well as the supplies and materials necessary to repair the other systems that are in place here.”

All the work is patching, to some degree.

“Based on the due diligence of those other two buyers we believe that it’s financially unfeasible to bring that park into compliance with either 1971 or current standards,” he confirmed, and the primary aim is now to clear the 10.6 acres: “Our goal will be to help those tenants find other housing options. We’ve already spoken to … Lexington Court Apartments and we’ll be reaching out to the other apartments as well.”

Lexington Court is a federally-subsidized affordable housing complex.

We’re not trying to make money off of this project. There will potentially be some incentives for individuals, to help with relocation.”

There’s a lingering question that won’t be answer for a while.

“The number one question I get asked is: ‘When this is all over, what are you going to do with the property?’ The answer to that is we’ve got 18 months to determine an appropriate, final use,” Selleck said. “From a compliance standpoint, this is the most cost-effective and efficient way for us to move forward with enforcing our current codes without caving and giving in and allowing this use to continue pretty much as it is into perpetuity.”

Following Selleck’s presentation, Mayor Ronnie Spradlin closed the public hearing on the mobile home park proposal after no one else asked to speak.

None of the elected officials weighed in on the issue either: council member Mike Sechrist moved for approval of the budget amendment and the contract with the mobile home park’s owners. Seconded by council member Victor Boyd, the motion was unanimously-approved with no discussion.

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