Trailer Hitches

Murky water, hard-nosed rules, and a whirlwind of lawsuits in a Monticello mobile-home park

"The water came out of the spigot like pudding sometimes. Like thick, lumpy, black pudding." Pauline Collins wrinkles her nose, remembering the gunk that had poured from the faucets in her trailer at Kjellberg's mobile-home park near Monticello. Then she adds, "Some mothers said that after bath time their kids got rashes. Can you believe it?"

Kjellberg's Park sits about a mile south of the main intersection of Monticello, just beyond the metro area's northwest suburbs. The park straddles Highway 25--300 mobile homes sitting on handkerchief lots, surrounded by soybean, potato, and corn fields. On a weekday afternoon in mid-September the narrow, tree-lined streets are quiet: A shirtless guy leans under his car hood, checking the oil; a gray-haired man waters his grass; kids ride by on bikes. On redwood decks, plastic pinwheels twirl amid colorful flower pots. Anyone passing through might not suspect that lawsuits are tearing the place apart.

Number 637, where Bernice and Barry Halberg live with their two sons in a trailer they bought for $6,000 this summer, got a taste of the strife not long ago. In August Kjellberg's management told the Halbergs that they were required to install vinyl siding and skirting on their aluminum-clad home. If they refused? They'd be out by December 15.

The couple signed a paper agreeing to abide by the requirement, even while trying to figure out how in the world to scrounge up the thousands of dollars they'd need to pay for new siding. That was before they found out that the order may violate Minnesota Statute 327C, which says that manufactured-home park rules must be "reasonable." Surely, they figured, this one wasn't.

Reasonable or not, several families in the park have in recent years been ordered to vinyl-side their homes or face eviction. Bernice Halberg--a petite woman with jet-black hair pinned up in a ponytail--says neither her family nor any other she knows at Kjellberg's can afford to comply with the order: "Probably 95 percent of the young people in this park work in the fast-food places in town--the DQ, McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, or at Cub and Kmart. I mean, nobody makes much money. If we did, we wouldn't live here."

The siding issue isn't the only thing on park dwellers' laundry list of complaints. Residents own their homes and lease the lots at Kjellberg's--paying an average monthly fee of $260, which covers land rental and costs for sewer, water, and weekly garbage pickup. (That arrangement is standard for nearly all of the state's 125,000-plus trailer-park residents.) But a good share of the folks who live at Kjellberg's Park say the services they receive just aren't acceptable.

The water? It turns black about once a week, residents say, and is vile-smelling. John Simola, Monticello's director of public works, has heard their grievances, but because the park and its wells are privately owned by Kjellberg's Inc., he has no jurisdiction over the situation. "We've received numerous complaints from residents about water, but our hands are tied," Simola says. "All we can do is pass them on to the county and the health department."

And the sewer? According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, it has long been defying state standards. The agency had been wrangling with Kjellberg's for nearly a decade; the matter, says MPCA compliance coordinator Tod Eckberg, is "clearly the longest case we've worked on." Eckberg explains that the agency filed a lawsuit in 1991 in Wright County District Court against Kjellberg's Inc. on the claim that the park's sewage-treatment system wasn't up to code. "We were alleging that they were polluting surface and ground waters," he recalls. "They had nothing--a big septic tank, discharged into a wetland."

Even garbage collection comes with a hitch. In August Kjellberg's Inc. filed suit in federal court against the City of Monticello, charging that the city cannot charge park management for trash pickup because its residents are taxpaying homeowners and thus entitled to free services.

Simply put, Kjellberg's Park is a lawsuit-addled place.

 

Jean Weisbrich, who lives with her husband Earl in No. 13, knows it all too well. She finally got tired of the way she and her neighbors were being treated, so late last year she picked up her phone and called All Parks Alliance for Change (APAC), a St. Paul-based advocacy group for trailer-park dwellers statewide.

APAC immediately hit the narrow streets at Kjellberg's, says alliance organizer Miriam Wyman. "In November 1998 we came in and flyered the park, generally letting residents know we were out there and giving them our toll-free hotline." That prompted a letter from Thad Yuker, the park's resident manager, informing them that they "must obtain permission to trespass" at the court. APAC turned to the attorney general's office for assistance and got it: AG attorneys in December informed Kjellberg's that it was the group's constitutional right to distribute leaflets in the park for noncommercial purposes.

Even so, APAC's campaign got little response from residents. "The first meeting I had out there, three people showed up," Wyman recalls. "Later, residents told me they were too afraid to come: If management knew they were there they'd get picked on."

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