'We have lost everything'

The land beneath 309 mobile homes is sold,

shattering residents' lifestyles and investments.

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published May 22, 2005

SEMINOLE - Just thinking about it made Herbert Lenhart's brown eyes fill with tears.

But he was determined not to cry this morning. At 75 years old, with two heart surgeries behind him, he needed to stay calm, for himself and the hundreds of seniors who were about to receive some very bad news.

The slender retiree stood before his neighbors at an emergency meeting Saturday in Harbor Lights Mobile Home Park. Rumors had been swirling for days, but many residents still did not know the truth.

Lenhart told them that their nine-member board had received certified letters on Wednesday from the property owner's lawyer. Someone wanted to buy the land beneath their 309 mobile homes for $45-million. (Residents own their homes, but not the land). If they could not counter with an offer, the property owner likely would sell the land, possibly for condominiums.

The board had tried, Lenhart told residents, to come up with a solution. But it was too much money.

The worst part: Residents would receive, at best, a few thousand dollars from the state to either relocate their mobile homes or deed them over to the new property owner.

Several residents burst into tears.

"Who ever heard of starting all over at 70, 80, or 90 years old?" Lenhart said after the meeting. "We have lost everything. What are we going to do?"

If residents are forced to leave, they may lose tens of thousands of dollars invested in their mobile homes. It is expensive to move them, residents say, and easy to damage them in the process.

Many residents have health problems. While residents met on Saturday, ambulance sirens screamed through the park, as a woman died of a heart attack.

Lenhart and his wife, residents for 20 years, paid $144,000 in January to move down the street to a waterfront home. Their neighbors, Rose and Joe Croce, paid $155,000 for their mobile home a month ago. They are all moved in, and already have paid $7,000 in taxes, $500 to chop down two trees, $200 to fix their door, and another $60 for a credit check, required by the park. All of it, gone.

"They took all our money," said Rose Croce, 65.

She sat at her kitchen table in tears after the meeting.

That got Lenhart crying again, too.

She leaned over and patted his hand.

"Be strong," she said. "If you get sick, it will be even worse."

He wiped his cheek. "Yeah, I know," he said softly.

Croce and her husband aren't as bad off as others in the park. They are seasonal, like about 60 percent of the park's residents, and will move back to their home in New Jersey. About 40 percent of the park's roughly 400 residents live there year round.

Most of them are worried about money. They worked decades as masonry contractors, corrections officers, food and beverage managers and registered nurses. More than a few served in the military. They live on limited incomes, and many paid cash for their homes, roughly $50,000 for inland spots, or $100,000 to $150,000 along the water. They also pay $350 to $400 a month to rent the land.

The tidy park, with palm-lined streets, sits on a beautiful piece of property on Long Bayou, just west of the Seminole Bridge on Bay Pines Boulevard.

Residents are like a family. They chat in the shade at an outdoor pool. Play shuffleboard and bocce. Visit their private library, filled with hundreds of books.

They line dance on Mondays. Play bingo on Tuesdays. Gather for coffee and donuts on Wednesdays. They bring steaming plates of chicken pot pie, meatloaf and green beans for potluck dinners. They decorate their clubhouse with hearts around Valentine's Day and honor couples celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries. "This is not replaceable," said park resident Linda Thompson, who moved to the park four years ago. "Condos won't have the same feeling."

Residents don't know who made a bid on the property, or what the exact plans are. They suspect condos, but don't know for certain.

The letter they received last week said simply that the owner of their 43-acre park, East Madeira Corp., had received an unsolicited offer of $45-million. The owner was giving residents 45 days to come up with a counteroffer. If they could not, the property likely would be sold.

Lenhart and other board members immediately started crunching numbers. They found out they could probably get a loan for $30-million. But coming up with the other $15-million would be hard, and many believe it would simply be cheaper to buy another home.

It's a scenario that is unfolding across Tampa Bay as mobile home park owners cash in for more lucrative developments, such as townhomes or condominiums.

Harbor Lights residents said they were warned when they bought homes that the property might be sold someday. But they said owners repeatedly assured them it wouldn't happen. They said they inquired about buying the land roughly seven months ago and were told to expect a price of $18-million to $20-million. Too much, they decided.

Royal Travis, of East Madeira Corp., could not be reached on Saturday. His father started the mobile home park in the 1960s. The family also owns the land beneath the adjacent Bay Pines Marina.

The Seminole City Council earlier this month gave initial approval to a voluntary annexation of both properties, which were valued at about $6.8-million by the county Property Appraiser's Office.

Lenhart, a Marine Corps veteran, doesn't know what he will do.

He stood outside his home on Saturday, looking out over the bayou.

"I waited a long time for this," he said quietly.

With that, he went inside to his wife. His phone hadn't stopped ringing. Other residents kept calling, asking, what are we going to do?