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A price on paradise

Once, no one in Briny Breezes had any worries. Then someone came along and asked them to choose what they value most.

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published February 5, 2006


photo
[Briny Breezes Historical Society]
For years, the community church was the center of social life at Briny Breezes. In 1955, when this photo was taken, more than 100 of the park’s winter residents posed between the palm trees outside the chapel. Note the harpist in the center. Some wondered how she transported that enormous instrument in her tiny trailer.

 
[Times photos: Bob Croslin]
Just before happy hour, Mikey Rulli sits on the steps of her trailer, wearing the “Vote No” hat she had made for Briny’s community meeting. Rulli, 59, discovered Briny Breezes 11 years ago and bought her trailer that same day.
The homes are so close together in Briny, you can hear your neighbors sneeze. The trailer park incorporated as a town in 1963, and today includes 488 metal houses and more than a dozen community buildings. Mostly retired snowbirds, the residents own their lots and houses.
[Briny Breezes Historical Society]
Briny hasn’t always been for older folks. In the late 1930s, when this photo was taken, most of the residents were families. More than 50 children rode the bus each winter from Briny Breezes to a nearby elementary school. Bob Kraft, pictured in front, getting ready to board the bus, is 79 now. He still lives in Briny.
Shuffleboard has always been one of the most popular pastimes at Briny. Here, before a recent afternoon match, players draw names from a coffee can to find out who their partner will be. The courts include a shady awning and metal bleachers where fans watch.
Every morning, Nancy Boczon and Bill Tolford meet their neighbors at the Briny Breezes clubhouse to watch the sun climb out of the Atlantic. Most evenings, before happy hour, the couple returns to the beach to enjoy the evening breeze. Briny’s private 600-foot beach is the main reason a developer wants to buy the town.

BRINY BREEZES - The light in A-10 usually goes on first. That's Mikey Rulli's trailer. She's the one who wore the "Vote No" hat to the meeting.

Every morning at 5:30, Mikey walks through the dark to her friend Barbara's trailer, two doors down, and they stroll a block to the Intracoastal Waterway. If you get there early enough, Mikey says, you can watch the moon set. How can you put a price on that? she wants to know.

"Good morning, Mikey!" Barbara calls this morning.

They thread through the narrow streets and stand beside the silver water, watching as the last moonbeams are swallowed. Then they head back east to the beach, where the sun is just starting to climb from the sea.

Neighbors begin to join them, gliding up on bikes. Others sputter up in golf carts. "Good morning, Bob!" "How you feeling, Bill?" Then everyone gathers at the Briny Breezes clubhouse, where they sit on the porch in rocking chairs, sipping coffee, sharing the sunrise.

"Morning, ladies. Mind if I join you?" a man asks Mikey and her friends.

Mikey thinks for a minute.

"Okay," she finally nods. "But only if you promise not to talk about it."

She's sick of the speculation, the arguing, everyone going on about the money.

This place was better off, she says, before folks knew they might be millionaires.

* * *

Briny Breezes is a dot on the map just south of West Palm Beach, a tiny trailer community surrounded by seven-figure mansions and swanky condos. It's an incorporated town with its own mayor and aldermen who oversee 488 trailers. ("We're not uppity enough to call them mobile homes," one man said.) The homes and community buildings cover 42 acres stretching from the Atlantic to the Intracoastal.

A relic of old Florida, Briny is one of the last nuggets of the Gold Coast where average families can afford a place by the sea.

Five generations have wintered here, teachers and machinists from Michigan and Maine. Current residents - most of them retired, all of them white - include a retired history professor who gives Civil War lectures at the clubhouse, a man who made makeup for Avon, a former Miss Mississippi in her 90s. Every one of them scrimped for years so they could buy a single-wide lot in the sun. "A millionaire's lifestyle without the millions," Mayor Jack Lee likes to say.

In Briny, you never have to worry about anything. You don't have to think about dressing up or trying to impress anyone. You are never lonely or bored. You live so close to your neighbors that when you sneeze in your kitchen they say, "Bless you!" Everything you want is within walking distance: the beach and boats, fish and friends, bingo and shuffleboard, Bible study and poker nights.

If you get hurt or sick, everyone rallies around and drives you to the doctor and bathes your dog. And the casserole brigade shows up, always does.

* * *

For 70 years, people in Briny didn't have much to fight about. The biggest flap was whether to fly a Canadian flag beneath the American one at the clubhouse. (They flew it.)

Then, in October, a developer showed up and offered to buy Briny Breezes, the whole town: all the trailers, the fish-cleaning station and shuffleboard courts, Town Hall, the fitness center, the billiard club and auditorium, the art studio where ladies take watercolor classes.

Jean Francois Roy, the founder of Ocean Land Investments in Boca Raton, wants to build a hotel and more mansionlike condos along the surf. He would bulldoze Briny to make room.

He offered to pay $500-million - enough to make everyone in the trailer park a millionaire.

For the sale to go through, 80 percent of the residents have to agree. Each homeowner gets a vote, weighted more if their lot is larger or near the water.

Some people can't wait to sell. ("It's like I hit the lottery!" said one woman, who paid $66,000 for her trailer a few years ago.) They have their reasons: grandkids and college, medical bills, a new Cadillac. And hurricanes. Wilma beat up Briny pretty badly last fall. What if the next one erases it from the map?

For others, the decision is more complicated. They think of doubles bridge and old friends and the communal garden.

Discussions escalate. Even couples are at odds: He wants to cash out, but she won't leave. Most of the disagreements are gentle still, but you can feel the tension all through town.

Mikey Rulli says she'll never sell - for any amount. It makes her sad that people who seemed so proud of their little piece of paradise are willing to give it up.

You'd think money would matter to somebody with nine kids, 20 grandkids and six great-grandchildren. But Mikey doesn't want a million dollars. "Means nothing to me. Just plain nothing," she says. She's 59. She spends six months a year in Pennsylvania. "I exist up North," she says. "I come alive in Briny."

How can you put a price on that? Mikey asks.

* * *

Swimnastics starts at 10. A half-dozen women are jogging through the water.

In the auditorium, the church choir is rehearsing for tonight's concert. They're raising money to build dressing rooms for the 400-seat theater. They know the whole place might be razed, but this was already on the schedule.

Across the way, in the hobby club, 20 quilters are stitching bright squares. A few buildings over, in the chiselers club, men are carving wooden bowls, sharing tools. After lunch, people start lining up on the shuffleboard courts to pick partners for a tournament.

"I used to be on the team here. Used to be good," says Ruth Terrio, settling on the wooden bleachers. "But now that I have this," she says, brandishing the tube that runs from her nose to the oxygen tank beside her, "I can only watch."

She shades her eyes to better see the shufflers. She's 80, from Massachusetts. "My aunt has been coming here for 40 years," she says. "When my husband died, my aunt says, "You've got to come down here! It's THE place for widows.' Then I spun out on black ice that winter and knew I had to move to Florida. They started a singles club here last year, one man and 11 women. The odds weren't so good. You meet more men playing shuffleboard."

Ruth loves this place, she says. "But I don't have 10 years left in me anyway. So I'm going to take the money and run." She'll probably look at senior housing in New Jersey or Maine, to be near her grandchildren.

What about the cold and snow? "With a million dollars," she says, "I can pay someone to shovel my driveway."

A white-haired man comes up, carrying a ragged scrapbook. "Hi, Bob!" Ruth greets him.

Bob Kraft is 79, a retired English teacher from Detroit. He has been staying at Briny since he was a boy.

His parents would drive down every winter in their pull-behind trailer, and he would swim in the ocean each afternoon and fall asleep in that metal can each night, listening to his folks laughing with the neighbors. "No one had air conditioning or TV, so everyone stayed outdoors," he says. The trailers were so small back then, most of the adults slept outside, under mosquito netting.

Bob has been thinking a lot about this place, how it got started, how it has changed. This afternoon he checked pages of history out of the little library. "See this?" he says, showing Ruth a photo of flattened palm trees, crumpled trailers. "That's the 1947 storm; it knocked down our restaurant."

Ruth smiles. "Oh, Bob," she says. "You've got to show these to the die-hards who want to stay here. Maybe that'll convince them to take the million dollars while they still can."

* * *

Briny Breezes has been around since the Depression, when a farmer named Miller started letting "tin can tourists" camp on his land. As long as you were buying his milk and strawberries, you could stay.

By 1937, the year Bob Kraft showed up, Briny had an advertising campaign. Fliers in the Chicago Tribune hawked "America's Trailer Park Paradise" - 40 travel trailers parked under palm trees. "Families from the north are living here, paying $3 a week rent," the ad said.

Trailers didn't have bathrooms then, so Briny had bath houses, with showers and toilets. For 25 cents, you could rent a plug for the washtub from the park office. You had to bring your own soap, wring clothes out by hand.

Whenever someone hauled in a mess of fish, the man up at the office would grab a megaphone and shout: "Fish! Come and get it!"

"There were mostly families back then, not just retirees," Bob says. "In the '40s, we'd have 50 kids waiting for the school bus. I'd go to school here all winter."

When Miller decided to retire in 1958, he asked the campers: Would you like to buy a piece of this place?

He sold the little lots for $2,000, and $2,500 for the ones on the water. People borrowed money, sold stuff, threw their assets in together. For another $1,200, you could buy an 18-foot trailer. Briny Breezes incorporated as a town in 1963, and many of the original owners still live here.

* * *

"Over the years, people came and made offers to buy this place. But there was never enough money to make it worth leaving," Bob says. "But now the buzzards are really circling Briny. You'd think they'd have the courtesy to wait until we lie down."

He's already getting pamphlets from retirement communities and condo complexes in Mount Dora, St. Augustine, Ocala and Orlando. Brochures from real estate agents, from financial planners, from all over. "Let us help you invest your windfall!"

"A few couples have been going around looking at places together. But we can never duplicate this place, or take all the people with us," Bob says. "That's the best part of Briny - all the people. No matter what happens, because of this offer, we're already starting to lose what we had." He shakes his head. "And I'm worried it's only going to get worse."

Bob hasn't decided how he'll vote at the stockholders' meeting in March, or what he'll do if this place is sold. "I planned on being here for the rest of my life," he says. He and his wife, Evelyn, have lived in Briny full-time since he retired in 1987. "We had a big home up in Cape Canaveral too, in a nice golfing community. But we didn't know the neighbors there. So we sold it."

Bob doesn't need the million dollars. He doesn't want a bigger house or a new car. "I don't have any kids, any heirs. And I'm not active in the church," he says. "That money would just go to charity, to the Humane Society or something. I understand why it means so much to other people. But it really wouldn't do anything for me, not at my age." If Briny is bulldozed, he says, "We have no place to go."

* * *

In late afternoon, the shadows start lengthening. Folks fill the streets, cradling wine glasses and plastic cups.

It's time for the Gathering. Or Miller Time, as they call it over in Section 2.

"All you have to do is walk outside and pick a party," says Nancy Boczon, sipping a glass of chardonnay.

Nancy's friend Bill Tolford had a pacemaker put in two days ago. But here he is, nursing a Manhattan on his patio, unwilling to miss another night with his neighbors. Bill is 81, a retired optometrist from Maine. He has been coming to Briny for more than 50 years. "It's already changing so much," he says. "Even before this offer, there were signs."

Indoor bathrooms started it, he says. Then air conditioning and TV. Folks who used to live mostly outside now retreat to their trailers to watch cable. The Gathering is the biggest window into what this place once was.

As the old-timers die, Bill says, a new crop of people are buying into Briny. Weekenders, he calls them: folks who live inland in Florida and want a cheap retreat by the beach. These younger families aren't interested in square-dancing or shuffleboard. They don't sign up for knitting classes or help weed the garden.

Briny's buildings are deteriorating, too. "For the past 20 years, our boards have prided themselves on not raising our assessments. But it's all coming back to haunt us now. Our sea wall needs to be patched, the water and sewer systems are old, everything is going to have to be brought up to code - and it's all going to cost money."

Because the trailers are all so old - most date to the '60s - laws would prohibit people from replacing them if a storm blew them away.

"I'm too old to start over," Bill says. "But in 10 years, if we don't sell, this place either will be blown away or too run-down to recognize."

* * *

The light in A-10 snaps on just before sunset. Mikey Rulli bounces down the back steps, wearing her "Vote No" hat, careful not to spill her vodka tonic. She crosses the patch of grass behind her trailer, the so-called yard she shares with her neighbor Bonnie.

"Hello, Bonnie! You hosting happy hour today?"

"I am now."

Bonnie Labrecque is 61. In May, her husband, John, died here, and everyone in town took care of her. All summer, while she was in New Hampshire, Bonnie's Briny friends called and sent cards.

She brought her husband's ashes with her when she came back. Though he had lived in New Hampshire most of his life, John wanted his remains spread on the beach at Briny. "This was where he felt loved and accepted," Bonnie says.

The women are wearing bathing suits and long, loose shirts. No shorts. No shoes. No makeup or jewelry. They sit in plastic chairs on Bonnie's patio, sipping their drinks, listening to the wind chimes, watching the sky fade.

They talk about everything they love, how it's all here. You can't buy what really counts, they say: health, family, friends. A slice of Nirvana shaded by an aluminum awning.

"This place makes me happy," Mikey says. "I walk out my back door, and one neighbor's making me a cocktail. I walk out my front door, and another friend is waiting to go with me to art class."

A woman approaches, walking a black Lab. "Hi, Kathy!" In the trailer across the driveway, a man is whistling some old standard. "Hey, Terry, keep it down!" Mikey yells, teasing.

The whistling stops. "My wife's gone to bed," the man calls, poking his face out the window. "Any of you ladies want to go grab Chinese?"

They all laugh, raise their glasses. How can you put a price on that?

"Okay," Mikey shouts. "But only if you promise not to talk about it."

- Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com

* * *

SELLING BRINY

A 1937 flier in the Chicago Tribune hawked Briny Breezes to an early generation of snowbirds:

"This is one of the many trailer towns that have sprung up in Florida in the last two years. Families from the north are lining up here, paying $3 a week rent.

"It is 18 miles south of fashionable Palm Beach where the rich pay $10 to $25 a day hotel rent to enjoy the same sunshine and surf. World-famous polo fields 1/2 mile south.

"Bathe and fish, watch the sea and airliners sail by, enjoy the bracing balmy air, suntan in the sands or loll in the shade.

* * *

BRINY BY THE NUMBERS

42 - acres the park covers, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway

488 - mobile homes in Briny Breezes

750 - seasonal residents

175 - permanent residents

60 - community lunches and dinners served between November and April

$1.5-million - annual budget for the town

$500-million - amount developer offered to buy town

$1-million - average amount each homeowner would be paid

$129,000 - median value of Briny mobile homes in 2000 census

$5,000 - average annual assessment Briny residents pay; includes water, cable, landscaping

600 - feet of beach

70 - median age of residents

Sources: residents and scrapbooks from Briny Breezes Library

* * *

BRINY THROUGH THE YEARS

1930s - "Tin can tourists" in trucks and pull-behind trailers, start camping on farmer Miller's strawberry fields.

1935 - Outdoor bathrooms and washhouses are added.

1937 - The park has 40 trailers; rent is $3 a week.

1939 - Mann's Gas Station opens at Briny, right on the beach. It's the only gas station on A1A between Palm Beach and Miami.

1940s - More than 50 children wintering at Briny ride the public school bus every day.

1942 - German U-boats lurk off Briny's beach. Residents have to use blackout curtains.

1950 - Briny leaders buy World War II Quonset huts and truck them into the park for use as a chiselers club, a hobby club and an art studio.

1957 - A charter boat runs daily deep-sea fishing trips from Briny Marina.

1958 - Farmer Miller sells lots to seasonal renters for $2,000 inland, $2,500 waterfront.

1963 - Briny Breezes incorporates into its own town with a mayor and clerk.

1964 - A new double-wide, top-of-the-line mobile home costs $16,000.

2002 - A waterfront mobile home and lot sells for $150,000.

2005 - A developer offers to buy Briny Breezes. He'll pay an average of $1-million per home. Residents vote to spend $30,000 to hire an attorney to look into the offer.

March - Residents are expected to vote on whether to sell Briny. For the sale to go through, 80 percent of the property owners have to agree.

[Last modified February 2, 2006, 12:31:03]


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