Majority may not be enough

Most residents - but not a two-thirds majority - vote to buy a mobile home park.

Published April 10, 2007

LARGO - Even after a poll of residents, the controversy continues at the Palm Hill mobile home park.

On one side, the board of the residents' co-operative remains determined to purchase the park and plans to go to court to make that happen, according to its attorney.

On the other, opponents protest that the poll didn't get the two-thirds majority that had been established as a key benchmark of support, so the purchase should die.

Many Palm Hill residents have argued that they could secure the park's future by having the co-op buy Palm Hill from its current owners, the Taylor family, for $76-million. The residents had hoped that owning the park would prevent exorbitant rent increases in coming years.

In a recent poll at the 55-and-over park, 625 residents favored the purchase, while 368 opposed it.

But before the poll, the board had said that it needed at least 731 positive votes - a two-thirds majority of the total - to go forward.

Last week, however, after the results were announced, the board indicated that it was moving forward anyway.

Opponents yelped in protest.

"What's happened is mind-boggling," said Pat Coughlin, 62, a teacher who voted against the purchase. "The no's carried it to vote it down. ... We were absolutely flabbergasted."

Joe Gaynor, the attorney for the co-op's board, said a two-thirds majority should not be required, and he plans to go to court in search of a legal ruling that will make clear that the purchase can go forward.

The co-op board had originally decided to mandate a two-thirds majority rule because of conflicting clauses in the lease paperwork that required a 75 percent majority and a simple majority of 50 percent plus one, respectively, to decide land acquisitions.

Gaynor said when there is no clear percentage specified in the paperwork, it is customary to use a two-thirds majority. He also said the board wanted to protect itself against naysayers in the community who thought the price of the land was too high.

"We were overly cautious because we thought we would be accused of rigging the election," Gaynor said. "In hindsight, it was the wrong thing to do. We should have just gone with the 50 percent. That is legally justified anyway."

Gaynor said he believes the court will come to the same conclusion.

Palm Hill, one of Pinellas County's largest mobile home parks, covers about 165 acres north of Ulmerton Road and east of Seminole Boulevard and includes 1,096 homes.

The 1,500 or so residents own their homes and all the park's improvements, such as the streets, sewer lines, pools and clubhouses, through a co-operative. But the land the park sits on belongs to the John S. Taylor family of Largo, which leases the land to residents.

The co-op's board proposed purchasing the land from the Taylor family in late March in order to acquire the property before the next appraisal in 2010, which would likely cause rents to increase significantly.

If the 2010 appraisal matched the Taylors' recent appraisal of $81-million, the residents could pay as much as $493 per month beginning in 2010, Gaynor said.

In contrast, the $76-million purchase price would require each resident to pay $399 per month.

The proposal has caused a deep rift between residents, some of whom believe that $76-million is far too much to pay. They contended that the price did not account for the fact that the residents own all of the improvements.

But Andrew Rodnite, the attorney for the Taylors, said the appraisal is based on the terms of the current lease, which allows for the highest and best use of the property.

In other words, the appraisal is based on the amount the land could fetch if it were undeveloped.

Gaynor agreed. He said an independent appraiser hired by the firm lending the money to the co-operative board to purchase the park conducted its own appraisal, and came up with a $77-million value for the land.

Dottie Symmes has lived in the park for seven years and said she voted for the purchase.

"It's the old saying: It's better to own than to rent," she said. "This is one of the best and cheapest parks around right now. If we don't buy it, that is going to change."

Symmes said tensions in the neighborhood have been so high that there have been fistfights and police have started patrolling the area.

Rex and Rose Ann Fowler said they have felt the tension too, and they try to stay out of it.

"Everyone here is over 55," Rex Fowler said. "Nobody has to get that radical."

The Fowlers also voted to purchase the property.

"I think it will allow people to afford to live here," said Rose Ann Fowler. "I voted yes, but I could end up being wrong. I don't know for sure. I guess only time will tell."