"He said the deck had to come down, that it was a fire hazard. I'm really upset," said Meeks, a retired hairstylist.
When workers later began digging trenches on the west side of the park, 79-year-old retired firefighter Vernon Van Wie's tomato garden next to his trailer was the first to disappear. For months after that, residents had to cross open ditches to reach their homes.
"We're hostages in our own places," said Rose Kendall, a retired construction management consultant.
Neighbor Darlene McNama, who heads a park residents association, helped 23 residents file complaints with the city over alleged rent-control ordinance violations. In July, 45 of them filed suit against the park's owner for allegedly failing to maintain the place and causing the mounting problems.
The trailer park's management responded by supporting the creation of a rival homeowners association and by announcing the owner's intent to sell the park to a nonprofit group that would continue to operate it.
Retired movie studio driver Tom Casley heads the rival residents' group. He defends the removal of the trees, whose roots he blames for the park's sewer pipe problems. "The choice was: You have room to park or you have trees. None of us wanted to lose the trees, but it was time," Casley said.
Trying to Retain Affordable Housing
James Joffe, whose property management firm operates the trailer park for Muramatsu, acknowledged that the owner would like to see the park closed and its site redeveloped.
"Until two years ago the place was an absolute delight," Joffe said. "Here's what you had: a sleepy little trailer park that is not mainstream America and is most certainly not mainstream Westside L.A. or Santa Monica. And people start getting things stirred up, saying, 'We should have a better place to live.' "
Joffe contends that the park and its old trailers "have way outlived their usefulness. The best thing would have been for the park to close down." Vacant, the park could probably fetch $12 million to $15 million if sold, he said.
Muramatsu could not be reached for comment. ("You have a better chance of having a conversation with the head of the CIA," Joffe said.)
But the man in charge of the nonprofit organization that wants to buy the Village Trailer Park said it will remain as affordable housing if the $4.5-million deal goes through.
However, said George Turk, tax-exempt financing--with about $1.5 million in backing from the city--will be necessary before his Costa Mesa-based Millennium Housing group can close the deal.
Turk said his group owns about 600 mobile home spaces in California and is in escrow for the purchase of 1,000 more.
City officials said they want more information about Millennium Housing and its proposal before committing support to Turk.
"We've said we'd look at any proposal, but we're not there yet," said Jesus Morales, acting housing coordinator for Santa Monica's Housing and Redevelopment Division.
Other officials said they don't know how the Village Trailer Park managed to stay beneath building and safety inspectors' radar for so long. But after the problems are fixed, the city is willing to step back, they said.
"We have no intention of trying to gentrify the park; that's one of the biggest concerns of the existing residents," said Tim McCormick, a city building and safety official.
"They may not be the most modern and have the latest conveniences. They may not be able to plug in the TV and the microwave at the same time. But that's their choice," McCormick said.
"Santa Monica is committed to preserving low-income housing. And this is one of them."