Manufactured Dissent

They own their homes. They pay property taxes. But if development forces them to move, they may not get a penny.

In the fading light of a fall evening, Valley Haven Home Park is almost invisible to the cars whizzing by it on Highway 101 in Shakopee. To get a complete look, you'll need to turn into the driveway and follow the rough paving job past the plastic owl and the American flag, past the miniature wishing well surrounded by flowers. Turn right after the windowless beige and green cinder-block building that smells vaguely like fabric softener. That's the park's laundry facility and storm shelter.

Inside the little L-shaped cluster of 31 mobile homes, the light changes by the minute. Car headlights flash by on the highway as commuters speed to the new homes down the road; closer in, the Rock Spring Supper Club's old-style "FOOD LIQUOR" sign flashes off and on. The blue neon lights of Dangerfield's bar spill over the tall redwood fence that encloses the park. And when the scene goes dark for a second, the windows of some of the homes glow with the silvery light of TV screens.

The blue neon washes over one side of Richie Larson's round face as he hands his mother the fiberglass blanket that should keep their pipes from freezing this winter. Betty Lindholm, 62, has taken a bottom panel off her trailer; now she's flat on her back, peeling old, gray heat tape from the pipes. Her son watches, his freckled face intent like that of a freshman during midterms.

But Larson is no college kid home for the weekend. He's 41 and stays with his mom because of a developmental disability. For the past 11 years, they've lived in the white trailer with black shutters that slumps slightly as if tired after two decades of loyal service. It would never survive a move to another park, and that's what Lindholm and Larson are worried about. Sandwiched as it is between residential subdivisions and a commercial strip, Valley Haven is a prime candidate for development. Ever since a "For Sale" sign went up on the park this summer, residents have feared for the community many have called home for decades.

Lindholm grabs the blanket from Larson, deftly tapes it into place, and gets up, alternately leaning on her cane and the home's ranch-style fence. Lindholm's hair is gray, her eyes big and brown, and she's dressed in a dark denim shirt with a Kleenex just barely peeking out of its pocket. "The whole purpose of moving here was so Richie could have a dog," she says. "We looked at other parks, but there could be no dog over 20 pounds." Shadow died of cancer last fall, she explains as her son races inside to retrieve pictures of the dog; but moving still isn't an option, since nearby manufactured-home parks have long waiting lists, and most will not accept homes older than 10 years.

To protect their homes--or at least get some money for them in the case of a park closing--the residents have been asking the city of Shakopee to adopt an ordinance under which a developer closing their park would have to pay fair market value for their homes, much like owners of standard houses are paid when their property is taken. Nine other cities have passed similar ordinances since 1987, when the state Legislature passed a law encouraging such measures.

Mobile-home residents own their trailers and pay property taxes on them; they are responsible for maintaining the homes and all above-ground fixtures, which is why Betty Lindholm wraps her own pipes. The land is the responsibility of the park owner, who also does the snowplowing, road upkeep, and the like. In the Twin Cities metropolitan area, an estimated 50,000 people live in manufactured homes, according to the All-Parks Alliance for Change, an advocacy group for park residents. Many of the parks are at risk, says APAC organizer Miriam Wyman: "There seem to be a lot of developers wanting to buy [them] out to put in more high-income houses or commercial business. We're finding that especially in the suburbs, where there's more money and, as a result, more development."

For now Valley Haven--which sits in Scott County, the region's fastest-growing county according to the Metropolitan Council--appears to have been spared. In early October the park was purchased by Phil Johnson, who says he's "a park owner by profession. That's basically what I do: purchase and operate manufactured-home parks. I don't have any far-reaching plans of doing anything different or selling the park to anyone else."

But residents are distrustful. Johnson "seems straightforward," says Althea Rank, who has lived at Valley Haven with her husband Bob since 1965. "But Yul Brynner acted like the King of Siam, and he wasn't."

Down the road from the Ranks, Anna and Scott Troseth aim their suspicions straight at Shakopee City Hall. The Troseths, both in their mid-30s, are the only young family in Valley Haven aside from a few single dads whose kids visit on weekends; they and their children, Emily, 13, and Bobby, 11, live in one of the two "doublewides" in the park. Neighbors speak of it proudly, inevitably noting that Scott spent the last few years remodeling the entire place. The house features freshly plastered and painted white walls, brand-new navy blue carpeting, and shiny oak cabinets in the kitchen, where Bobby is working on a papier-mâché Egyptian pyramid for a school project.

Anna has just gotten home from her longtime job at water-purification systems maker Osmonics, and she talks across the counter as she fixes dinner: "I think that the mayor is a weasel, a wimp. I was expecting hands-on government, and that's what's most irritating." As debate over the proposed ordinance heated up this summer, she says, it became clear that residents were much better informed than their elected representatives: "We've checked out surrounding parks and state laws, and no one on the council has done their homework."

Nor, says Troseth, could anyone from City Hall be bothered to come to a May barbecue hosted by Valley Haven, despite repeated invitations. The slight has taken on symbolic meaning for the residents: "It deflated us, took the wind out of our sails," says Althea Rank. "How can they not want to see the people involved, see the [park's] palatial homes?"

It was meetings with mobile-home residents, says Lake Elmo city administrator Mary Kueffner, that prompted her municipality to adopt a park-closing ordinance last year. When the issue was first brought up, she acknowledges, "I thought it was a little ludicrous that these people actually concern themselves with this. But then we talked with them, and I could see that there was a real genuine fear."

Shakopee City Council member Robert Sweeney, however, has no regrets about skipping the Valley Haven feast. "Are we to go anyplace that we're asked to go?" he inquires. "We are not at people's beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that's a policy of mine." The same applies, Sweeney says, to the residents' desire for a park-closing ordinance: "They've been at two council meetings and heard at length," he notes. "What they're really saying is that they're not getting what they want on the schedule that they want it. I'm sorry. But government doesn't necessarily function that way."

Park owner Johnson says he does not oppose the ordinance, but he's not sure that the compensation for the residents should come out of his pocket: "The money would have to come from someplace," he says. "The owner of the park, the buyer of the park could pay some of it. Maybe tax-increment financing, or maybe a combination of them. I haven't really thought how that would work."

Shakopee Mayor Jon Brekke says the city is planning to arrange for a meeting between Johnson, the residents, and city staff. Then, he says, city staff will draft an ordinance, which could come before the council later this year or maybe early next. But while that may be good news for Valley Haven residents, Earl Leman says the intervening months will feel interminable. Leman, 70 years old and the proud owner of a vintage 1963 "Hilton" model, falls quiet as he smokes his last cigarette of the evening. There's a burst of traffic on the highway, and headlights illuminate the lines of his face. "This means security, if you know what I mean," he says, pointing to the white-and-light-blue trailer. The letters HILTON twinkle in the light as the evening commute races by.

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