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Mobile Home Relocation Suit Has Wide Interest

Huntington Beach case could set a precedent on what owners must be paid if the park is sold.

October 10, 2006|Kelly-Anne Suarez | Times Staff Writer

Mary Jo Baretich loves her house, a cozy two-bedroom, two-bath place that's just a quick jog from the picturesque shoreline in Huntington Beach.

Given her fondness for the outdoors, it's an ideal spot for the retired mechanical engineer. Baretich, 65, lives in a mobile home, but it has hardly been that: It hasn't moved since it was hauled into Cabrillo Mobile Home Park in 1966.

Although Baretich's peaceful existence is not being threatened, she worries that that could change quickly, and everything she spent a lifetime building could be lost. The land under her home is valuable, and other seaside mobile home parks in the area have been bulldozed to make way for resort-style development.

In many respects, Baretich's future rests with the city of Huntington Beach, which is set to go to court later this month to protect a city law that requires land owners to relocate displaced mobile home park residents or pay them fair market value for their homes.

The case, which could set a precedent on how displaced residents are compensated, is being watched by cities and mobile home park owners throughout the state.

The suit was brought by a group of mobile home park owners that believes the 2004 law goes too far.

State law requires mobile home park owners to pay to relocate their residents' homes within a 20-mile radius if they decide to close. But relocations can prove difficult.

When neighboring Newport Beach researched the relocation of tenants in a waterfront mobile home park, only nine of 33 Orange County communities surveyed had spaces available. And most were for new homes only.

If relocation arrangements cannot be made, state laws says, tenants are to be reimbursed for the price of such a move, ordinarily about $15,000, said Steve Gullage, 84, president of the Huntington Beach Mobile Home Assn. and a former lobbyist on the issue.

"You give a guy $15,000 and tell him to buy another home in Orange County -- he hasn't got a prayer," said the retired tool engineer, who lives in the Los Amigos Mobile Home Park in Huntington Beach.

But the state does allow cities to enact more stringent measures.

So two years ago, at Gullage's urging, the City Council passed a law mandating that displaced mobile home owners be reimbursed for the market value of their homes if they couldn't be moved. Prices vary greatly, from $37,000 in Stanton to $940,000 in Anaheim.

Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Sullivan said the city felt that mobile home park residents, many of whom are retirees on fixed incomes, deserved more protection.

In June, a group of park owners sued the city, alleging that Huntington Beach's law violated the state Constitution. After months of failed negotiations, the council voted last week to go to trial. A hearing is set Oct. 30.

Mike Leifer, an attorney representing another park, Huntington Shorecliffs, in the suit, said his clients objected to the city "delegating a public obligation on us: to continue operating the mobile home park."

"They want my clients to buy their land back," he said.

Baretich disagreed. "If you have a condo on leased land, they'd reimburse you for your property. This shouldn't be any different," she said.

A mobile home community operates much like a condominium complex. Residents buy manufactured homes and lease the land under them from park owners. Depending on the community, those lease fees can include utilities and cable television, plus access to a clubhouse, pool and amenities such as tennis courts and golf courses.

Park fees vary throughout the county, from $350 up to nearly $3,000. Baretich pays $1,100 a month.

Her home is one of 45 in Cabrillo Mobile Home Park, which is close to the beach but also within sight of a large power plant.

Given the value of real estate near the water, Baretich believes she and her neighbors are living on borrowed time. The unkempt gutters and a scattering of vacant lots at the park only add to her concerns.

When neighbor Elmer Smith, 75, hears about this, his eyes slide toward his rusting, 1984 Dodge conversion van. If the park owners win the suit and Cabrillo park's owner decides to sell, the retired machinist said he would have to live in his van for a while. He bristled at the mention of relocation, saying his 30-year-old mobile home would not survive such a move.

These homes are meant to be moved only once, from the factory, he said.

Cabrillo Mobile Home Park is not listed as a petitioner in the suit, and phone calls to managers seeking comment were not returned.

A few miles down the road, Gullage sits with longtime friend and neighbor Lenora Bausserman, 84.

"We're not asking for charity. We're asking for fairness," Gullage said. "Look at this home," he said, scanning Bausserman's two-bedroom double-wide mobile home. It has a large master suite with a walk-in closet, a living room, dining room and den. There is also a spacious kitchen with a center island, where the two sat, reviewing what they fear is a shaky future.

"These are nice homes that are hard to replace," he said.

Gullage was the second person to move into Los Amigos in 1973.

He overheard a pair of construction workers discussing the community at a restaurant and decided to check it out.

Since then, he has been an advocate for residents of manufactured homes, serving for eight years as president of the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League, a lobbying group representing roughly 1 million mobile home residents in California. Many cities around the state are considering similar ordinances, he said, and are watching this case.

If the city is successful, he said, "Huntington Beach is going to have a big heart over it on the map."

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kelly-anne.suarez@latimes.com

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