The majority of Laguna Terrace Mobile Home Park residents support subdividing the 45-acre, 157-lot South Laguna park, which would allow individual homeowners to buy the ground beneath their homes, according to a recent resident survey.

Park owner Stephen Esslinger began holding preliminary discussions over a possible subdivision with city officials earlier this fall, according to   assistant planner Scott Drapkin. “We are assessing the entitlements,” Drapkin said.

Subdivision development fees could be exorbitant, according to Drapkin. “They could be a dealbreaker,” said the planner, who intends to   consult with the city attorney over the complex web of mobile home laws that will help determine the  preliminary estimate of subdivision costs.

“A lot of people are not so much against it as they have questions,” said Boyce Belt, president of the park’s homeowners association. “Questions will be answered as the process unfolds, which can take a couple of years. “Of 142 surveys sent out by the owner, 91 favored the proposal, five were opposed and six remain undecided, according to Belt, who received the consent of Esslinger’s attorney to    release the results.

“It’s a win-win for the residents,” according to Rob Coldren, a Santa Ana attorney who specializes in mobile home law and represented Stephen in his long legal battle for control of the park in a lawsuit filed by his father, Duke.

The suit was resolved in Stephen’s favor in 2007, clearing the way for him to consider subdividing the park’s 157 lots even as residents banded together in a failed effort to try to purchase the park themselves.

Some residents suggest subdivision will allow Esslinger to sell at an undue profit and avoid     repairing infrastructure dating from the late 1950s, such as problematic clay sewer pipes. Esslinger’s attorney said Esslinger spoke only through him.

Resident Judy Andrade says her neighbors assent to the survey merely means they are fed up with Esslinger and his managers and want to buy their lots to get the owner out of their lives.

“It’s like the Hotel California,” said the retired  dentist, who has owned as many as three homes in the park. “You can get in, but you can’t get out,” she said, referring to the park’s policies that       prohibit owners from selling their mobile homes without prior approval of management. “I’ve been here 11 years,” said Andrade, “and rents have    tripled. It started at $800 and they now get $2650 for some of the lots.”

Fighting abusive behavior by park owners is      difficult for tenants on fixed incomes, according to Jean Stirling of the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League, Inc., dedicated to preserving affordable mobile home ownership.

“It amounts to living in a Third World environment,” Stirling said, “like the laws of the United States don’t apply.” People get stuck with nowhere else to go, because they can’t afford to abandon their investment, she said.

California’s 4,800 mobile home parks are regulated by state law that protects low income families from out-ofcontrol rents. State law permits three scenarios for conversion. These are subdivisions, which can include a cooperative   approved by the state and local agencies, a condominium form of ownership that excludes land, or the full subdivision, where lots are owned by individual homeowners and the common areas owned by a homeowner’s association.

Other state laws that govern mobile home parks limit the autonomy of residents, such as one that allows the park owner to retain control of a park until 51 percent of the lots are sold, Andrade said.

Local activist and former mayor Ann Christoph agrees protective measures may be necessary to avert “economic eviction,” forcing out lower income residents if sale lots are high priced. “It depends on the price they want to charge, if it’s a reasonable price,” she said.

Based on a recent $45 million appraisal of the property, a rough calculation would amount to $300,000 per lot, a bargain price for a home site in Laguna Beach. Many view lots would fetch more. Legal considerations prevent a definite price per lot estimate until the subdivision application and due diligence process has progressed, said Laguna Terrace tenant attorney Gerald R. Gibbs of Huntington Beach, who supports subdividing mobile homes because residents will have more control of their homes.

Coldren said his client thinks subdividing will be a good deal for residents, but the owner is ambivalent about a process that is time and money      consuming. Despite the survey’s positive response, Esslinger may not go to the mat to fight with     dissenting tenants, Colden said.

Esslinger is looking for a consensus rather than unanimous consent. “If it’s too much hassle,” said Coldren, “he [Esslinger] may say, ‘We won’t     subdivide’.” Article from The Laguna Beach     Independent, 12/19/2008 by William Hagle