By Michele Clock UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER February 2, 2008

SANTEE – The city has claimed another victory in its drawn-out legal struggle over mobile home rent control.

A San Diego Superior Court judge ruled last week that a Santee mobile home park owner is not entitled to any of the $13.5 million in damages and rent increases the company had sought in a 2001 case against the city.

Chicago-based Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc., which owns a park on Mission Gorge Road called Meadowbrook Mobile Estates, should not receive money for enforcing city rent-control laws that were later revised. The proposed decision, issued Jan. 25, is the latest in the city’s ongoing legal saga over rent control. At issue are the city’s ordinances that regulate how much mobile home park owners can raise rents in relation to inflation.

City officials say the laws help protect many of the 4,000 mobile home residents against predatory and unfair price increases, while park owners have challenged the constitutionality of the ordinances as well as the way they were adopted.

The city has spent about $1.9 million defending the laws in court.

Mayor Randy Voepel, who once lived in a mobile home, said he was pleased with last week’s decision.

“It’s once again another victory,” Voepel said. “And I’m sure it will be appealed. And if they don’t appeal this one, they will file another. This is an endless lawsuit.”

An Equity LifeStyle official, meanwhile, declined to reveal the company’s next move.

“We will be following up in what we believe is the best interest of our shareholders in the future,” said Peter Underhill, regional vice president in charge of the company’s California operations.

Equity LifeStyle, then called Manufactured Home Communities Inc., challenged the city’s rent-control ordinances in 2001. The company argued that the city violated state election code when the City Council unknowingly approved the wrong draft of the ordinance, later correcting it and applying it retroactively.

The ordinances had called for rent increases of no more than 70 percent of the rise in the Consumer Price Index for San Diego County, down from 100 percent. A San Diego Superior Court judge sided with the company in 2003 and struck down the law. Judge J. Richard Haden determined city employees failed to follow proper procedure when they presented the ordinance to the council for approval.

But Santee challenged the ruling and prevailed in 2005. An appellate court reinstated the city’s mobile home rent-control ordinance. The California Supreme Court refused to review the appellate decision in 2005. But the case was sent back to Superior Court to determine whether Equity LifeStyle was entitled to damages for having to enforce a version of the law that was later revised.

Meanwhile, Santee continues to fight Equity LifeStyle in two other rent-control-related cases:

A lawsuit filed by the city against the company arguing that it illegally raised rents in January 2004 and should not have charged a one-time, $920 rent increase. The case is pending.

A lawsuit filed by Equity LifeStyle last year challenging the constitutionality of the city’s ordinance. The city filed a motion to dismiss the case, which is pending.