WILLIAMSTOWN -- A new group of The Spruces Mobile Home Park tenants, whose aim is their name -- "Save the Spruces" -- will hold its first meeting today under uncertain terms, as the Tenants Association and town officials increasingly feel a relocation of both park and people to higher ground is inevitable, tenants report.
One tenant, who wished to remained anonymous, described the ultimate message of a Tenants Association meeting held at the park Sunday as "give it up, kids."
"They say there’s no way for us to save The Spruces and we all should just get used to the fact that we have to move," this tenant said after the meeting, which was attended by roughly 60 tenants Sunday afternoon. Some left before the meeting’s close, upset with what they perceive as a lack of options being given to Spruces tenants.
But feelings vary among tenants concerning the town’s recent proposal to demolish and replace the Irene-damaged Spruces with new affordable housing on a separate town property using federal grant money -- roughly $6.25 million, for which the town has applied. It now awaits a response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which could come as soon as mid January.
Some tenants don’t want to move, believing they’re being given little choice in the matter. Others, fearing another flood like the one brought on by Tropical Storm Irene in August, 2011, view it as a "golden opportunity" for affordable in-town relocation -- especially after Hurricane Sandy created a flood scare at the park in October. The entire 114-acre Spruces property lies within a floodplain.
The former group points out that town officials waited until November to reveal the proposal to tenants, despite machinations having begun early this year, and feels marginalized.
The proposal’s details, both present and absent, concern these tenants. If it’s carried out, accommodations will be made for 66 owner-occupants currently calling The Spruces home. These, according to the proposal, include new lodgings in the form of 567-square-foot "Irene Cottage Homes" to be constructed if the grant is received; a $22,500 relocation payment under the Uniform Relocation Act, to 180-day owner-occupants only; a lifetime housing guarantee; and first-year rent payments equal to the roughly $250 per month most Spruces residents currently pay to park owner Morgan Management, in this case going to the town.
The town proposes a 30-acre swath, the Lowry property off Stratton road, as an appropriate site, but are not committed to that choice. Town Manager Peter Fohlin said a major reason for choosing it was proximity to town utilities. The swath has been in conservation since the early ‘90s but can be removed by a two-thirds vote from the Conservation Commission and Town Meeting.
During numerous interviews with tenants of the park, the following concerns were paramount.
Those renting their mobile homes, or whose mobile home belongs to family, are not eligible to receive a relocation payment; if a resident received financial support from FEMA after Irene, that figure will be docked from his or her relocation payment, and any remaining relocation funds a tenant may have after taking one of the Irene Cottages must be surrendered back to the town; used mobile homes are difficult to resell and, according to some tenants, no mobile home park within 100 miles is accepting additional numbers; some tenants have recently invested varying levels of funds into their homes, and would experience the loss of that value; the Irene Cottage Homes are smaller than most Spruces mobile homes, and some tenants say they cannot downsize without giving up belongings; rent could be subject to increase after the first year; and the $6 million FEMA grant, if received, still won’t be enough to complete the proposal’s steps, a reality that’s been confirmed by Fohlin and others.
Meanwhile, a new conservation group, Friends of Williamstown Conservation Lands, held its first meeting at the Orchards last Wednesday to voice its opposition to the choice of conservation land for the relocation. The meeting was attended by over 100.
On the other hand, Fohlin says the town’s proposal includes at least four "good faith" options for the park’s current tenants, and that no tenant is being given a mandate.
Residents can form a cooperative and purchase the park for $600,000 from Morgan Man agement -- or, the same price the company will receive from the FEMA grant funds, if they’re awarded. If they decide on this course, however, they’ll have to tend to a sewer system in disrepair, the Tenants Association stressed at Sunday’s meeting. A new owner could enter the frame by purchasing the park from Morgan Management and continuing to operate it as the latter has. Finally, tenants could partner with the town to determine their own future, Fohlin said.
However, action must be taken.
"Every time The Spruces floods, first responders put their lives at risk to rescue residents," Fohlin said in an interview last Friday. "... A floodplain is an absurd location for homes. ... [The town] is making every effort to create a new, safe community for The Spruces residents."
He said The Spruces, pre- and post-Irene valued by the Board of Assessors at $6.4 million and $1.24 million, respectively, is operating at a significant loss and that Morgan Management will likely shut down the park after another two years -- the period it’s obliged to maintain the park -- in any case. Fohlin said under the town’s proposal, tenants will remain at The Spruces for those two years and then be moved to the new development, which could be completed within that timeframe.
The town’s proposal, Fohlin added, comes in addition to ongoing efforts from the town’s Affordable Housing Committee and Spruces support organization Higher Ground to establish new affordable housing in other promising town locations, and leaves no one without homes or in harm’s way.
Discussions will continue in the coming weeks. Tuesday, Fohlin has scheduled to meet with tenants at The Spruces and several tenants have reserved a spot on the agenda for Selectmen’s meeting scheduled Monday, Dec. 10.
To reach Phil Demers, email firstname.lastname@example.org.