COLCHESTER – A large mobile home park in Colchester has been listed for sale, forcing hundreds of residents to decide whether they want to orchestrate a multi-million-dollar bid on the property.
The Betty Boyer Atkins Revocable Living Trust has owned Westbury Park since the death of the trust’s namesake in 2016. Atkins and her husband, Dave, opened the park in 1972.
“The people in the trust have been running it, and they’re of senior age,” said the trust’s realtor, Tom Weaver. “They just can’t keep doing it.”
The trust alerted residents of its intent to sell the sprawling, 186-acre property for $11.5 million in a letter earlier this month. Weaver said his clients want to sell the mobile home park as-is and hope whomever purchases the property continues its current use.
State law prescribes a lengthy process for mobile home park sales to give tenants a chance to bid for the land before it’s sold out from under them. Tenants have a six-week window to decide if they want to try and buy the property, usually through a resident-owned cooperative, which allows homeowners to essentially purchase a stake of the property through a single mortgage on the land. Still, park owners only have to entertain such offers.
“They can turn down the offer and sell it to someone else as long as it’s a better offer,” said Arthur Hamlin, housing program coordinator at the Vt. Agency of Housing and Community Development.
Tenants can also choose to not bid on the property. But if park owners plan to accept an offer for 5 percent less than the initial asking price, they must go back to the residents and provide notice again.
Hamlin’s agency makes sure property owners follow state law during the sale process and provides information to tenants. He plans to invite them to an Aug. 7 meeting at Colchester High School with nonprofit developers and the Cooperative Development Institute, a Massachusetts-based organization that supports resident-owned cooperatives.
If tenants eventually bid on the property, they wouldn’t be the first: Of 241 registered mobile home parks in Vermont, 60 aren’t privately owned. Nonprofit developers own 47, while resident-owned co-ops own the rest, including the state’s largest park in Brattleboro, which outsizes Westbury’s 250 lots by about 15 homes.
The resident-owned model is more prevalent in New Hampshire, where 125 co-ops currently operate.
Still, it will require buy-in from a majority of the park’s homeowners, who must sign a petition signaling interest before earning another 120 days to do some groundwork. Hamlin said that’s when groups often have the property appraised and explore finance options.
Hamlin said state law protects tenants in the “vulnerable” position of owning the home but not the land. He explained the law went into effect in the late ’80s after a slew of mobile home parks were sold to private investors, some of which hiked rents or closed parks altogether in lieu of more profitable ventures.
“The state decided at the time that mobile home parks were – and still are – a pretty good share of affordable home ownership in the state, and that should be protected,” Hamlin said.
But several cases around the county show even with the law’s help, these homeowners can face an uphill battle during negotiations. As reported earlier this year by VTDigger, owners of two other county mobile home parks rejected residents’ offers because they couldn’t match competing offers from private developers.
Like any other private sale, the town doesn’t play much of a role in the process, according to Sarah Hadd, Colchester’s director of planning and zoning. She noted the town plan, which is currently undergoing revisions for next year, acknowledges mobile homes provide affordable housing for hundreds of Colchester residents.
The same is true for Chittenden County. The more than 600 units spread across Colchester’s five mobile home parks represent about a third of the county’s mobile home stock.
According to a Hickok & Boardman Realty market report, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Chittenden County in 2017 cost $1,286 – more than $100 higher than the average rent in 2013.
Westbury, meanwhile, increased rent by just $20 over that same period, and, as of last year, offered lots for $445 a month. Though that’s third highest in the county, the property had no vacancy as of last December.
Jonathan Bond, director of the mobile home program at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said these parks provide “an avenue for home ownership that would otherwise be out of reach.”
“It’s your home to make your own,” he said.
If Westbury’s eventual buyer doesn’t continue operating the mobile home park, they must give residents 18 months to move out. That may seem like a large window, especially given the mobility of mobile homes, but Hamlin noted the name is somewhat of a misnomer.
“The longer they’ve been in place, the less likely it is that they’re actually functionally moveable without potentially causing damage,” he said.
And even if it’s feasible to transport the home, that’s only half the battle: “Where would you put it?” Hamlin asked.
Only five percent of the 7,000 lots in Vermont mobile home parks are vacant. There’s even less availability in Chittenden County, where only 1.5 percent of lots are unoccupied – less than 30 in total.
Bond acknowledged park sales make residents worry whether a new buyer will run the park the way they’re used to – or want to run the park at all.
He tried to assuage the latter concern by explaining the state isn’t losing many mobile home parks to closure, especially not larger ones like Westbury, and whomever purchases the property, he assumed, will want to maintain a community with nearly 250 rent-paying households.
“It’s clear that this park is for sale, and closure does not appear to be on the table,” he said.