Upward Mobility: With Housing in Short Supply, Mobile Home Parks Are Having a Moment. For Good Reasons, It Turns Out. | Housing Crisis | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Upward Mobility: With Housing in Short Supply, Mobile Home Parks Are Having a Moment. For Good Reasons, It Turns Out. 

Locked Out Series, Part 7

Published August 17, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated September 27, 2022 at 6:21 p.m.

click to enlarge DIANA BOLTON
  • Diana Bolton

Lots at Williston Woods mobile home park are a coveted prize. Realtors contact homeowners directly to ask if they're thinking of selling, and people routinely drive through the secluded hilltop community hoping to spot homes for sale. Spacious double-wide homes sit on wooded lots, and a bustling activity center offers daily entertainment to its 55-and-up residents.

The high demand for mobile homes extends well beyond this particular community. Some would-be buyers who have been priced out of the market for traditional homes are taking a fresh look at Vermont's 250 mobile home communities, large and small. As in the conventional real estate market, inventory around Vermont is low, and prices have risen.

"The few mobile homes that have come on the market have sold very quickly," said Dot Griswold, a White River Junction-based real estate agent.

These enclaves have long been memorialized — and sometimes stigmatized — in songs, film and literature as quirky, hardscrabble havens for people struggling to make ends meet. In recent years, though, modular-home manufacturers, policy makers and residents themselves have worked to change the thinking about these communities. Mobile homes account for about 7 percent of the housing in Vermont. A third of those homes, or about 6,700, are in mobile home parks.

The housing crisis, a rise in cooperative-ownership arrangements and changing public perceptions have created sufficient momentum that, for the first time in years, Vermont lawmakers are directing millions of dollars to improve long-neglected water and sewer facilities at the parks.

"These are communities where people live for decades — tightly woven communities with great support networks," said Maura Collins, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. "It's about time that this important part of our housing stock be given this attention."

One reason for the newfound respect: the value for residents. A typical lot rents for about $360 a month. If the park owner takes good care of the property, residents can find this to be a very good deal. Most own their mobile homes, and it's rare for a used one in central or southern Vermont to cost more than $80,000, real estate specialists there say. Prices are higher in Chittenden County, where a home in good condition can go for as much as $200,000. That's still well below the median price for a conventional home in the same region, which was $450,000 as of last month.

"It is one of the most accessible paths to homeownership in Windham County," state Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), Vermont's Democratic nominee for Congress, said in an interview.

When Emilie Kornheiser first campaigned for the legislature in 2018, she said she knocked on every one of the 330-plus doors in Tri-Park Cooperative Housing, a community in Brattleboro. "They were really happy to tell me the whole story of the community and about their neighbors in a loving, connected way," Kornheiser said, describing a neighborhood she found to be very much like others in town — though many local residents didn't know much about it.

About this Series

Seven Days is examining Vermont's housing crisis — and what can be done about it — in our Locked Out series this year. Send tips to
lockedout@sevendaysvt.com.

These stories are supported by a grant from the nonprofit Journalism Funding Partners, which leverages philanthropy and fundraising to boost local reporting. For more information, visit jfp-local.org.

Park residents talked to Kornheiser about the economy, politics and health care. One, a metalsmith, was pouring homemade bullets into molds, and she stayed to watch; another was feeding Froot Loops cereal to some neighborhood skunks.

"A lot of folks were quite engaged in politics; there was a lot of love for Bernie," Kornheiser said of Vermont's junior U.S. senator.

Now a Democratic rep from Brattleboro, Kornheiser has been working to steer funding to the parks. The privately owned communities have long struggled to pay for basic infrastructure, and state funding for them over the years has been limited. Even when the parks are eligible for public grants, complex applications can be a barrier, especially for smaller ones.

Mary Houghton, a housing policy veteran who sits on the board of Tri-Park, noted that much of Vermont's public funding for affordable housing goes into perpetually affordable multifamily buildings.

"Anybody associated with mobile home parks will say the state has a lot to make up for there," Houghton said. Many mobile home communities, such as Tri-Park, include low-lying areas. Some are still struggling to make repairs and upgrades related to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

The language that's used to describe these homes and communities is getting something of a makeover, too. "Trailer park" has fallen out of fashion, and housing policy makers often note that the "mobile" homes rarely go anywhere. Only about 1 percent move each year, according to state data.

"People still mistakenly refer to these as 'mobile homes,'" said Collins, who prefers "manufactured homes" for the ones built in recent decades — long after the days when homes came with wheels and directional signals. "They're not mobile." They're not located in parks, either, Collins noted.

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So far, Vermont has been spared the unwanted interest of Wall Street investors who are buying up parks nationwide and raising rents. Generally, the properties here are too small. Further, a state law passed in 1988 protects residents by giving them first dibs when their parks go up for sale. The cooperative movement has taken off, with 16 parks turning into resident-owned co-ops since 2011.

Vermont has long stood out for innovative housing programs, including those directed at parks, said Julia Curry. She's a longtime housing advocate who works for the Massachusetts-based Cooperative Development Institute, which helps mobile home park residents create co-ops.

"The agencies want to do right by them; that's been my experience, unlike in some other states where they are happy to keep stigmatizing them," Curry said. "But we're all working against decades of neglect by society in general."

Seven Days journalists visited residents in thriving parks such as Williston Woods, toured their recreation centers, and spoke to managers who keep the neighborhoods tidy and harmonious. One park we visited, in Colchester, is exploring incorporating itself as a legal village, partly to help obtain funds for projects that the park's residents would have difficulty paying for on their own.

When a park truly lacks resources, residents feel the impact. In Fair Haven, a park that could be sold for unpaid property taxes recently had its water shut off for nonpayment of bills. It's flowing again — for now.

Here's who and what we encountered at seven distinctive mobile home communities across the state.

— A.W.A

This map shows the location of all 236 Vermont mobile home parks registered in 2021. Click the icon to the left of the title to see options for filtering parks by lot quantity or ownership type.
See the full map here.
Map prepared by Seven Days. Source: Vermont DHCD Registration of Mobile Home Parks.


Swimming and potlucks

Tall Timbers of Quechee • Established 1977; 105 lots
click to enlarge The neighborhood swimming pool at Tall Timbers - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • The neighborhood swimming pool at Tall Timbers

On summer days, Tall Timbers of Quechee reminds resident Mel Tibbetts of an upscale campground. The grounds are expansive and shady, and a large clubhouse features workout equipment, a community room with dozens of books and puzzles, couches, and a kitchen. The foosball and pool tables are downstairs. On a recent hot day, kids screamed happily as they splashed around the kidney-shaped in-ground pool.

"This is one of the parks that everyone wants to get into," said Tibbetts, 56, who moved to Tall Timbers four years ago after her 33-year marriage ended. Tibbetts, who works as a paraeducator for the Hartford School District and also for a catering service, said she was only able to secure a spot because a Realtor friend tipped her off that it was coming up for sale.

"The house hadn't even gone on the market yet," Tibbetts said.

Tall Timbers was the only park in the Upper Connecticut River Valley that she toured in 2018 in which she was allowed to have a dog, she said. Tibbetts paid $48,500 for a home with two bedrooms, two full baths and a deck. Her lot rent is $430 a month, including trash and recycling pickup and water service.

Tall Timbers has raised the rent only once in 12 years, said manager Larry Hebert, who fields several calls a month from prospective residents. But the structures themselves are subject to inflation, just as traditional homes are.

Before the pandemic, said Griswold, the real estate agent based in White River Junction, used mobile homes in good condition regularly sold for around $30,000.

click to enlarge Mel Tibbetts at her Tall Timbers home - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Mel Tibbetts at her Tall Timbers home

"Now they are $70,000 and up, with two bedrooms and usually two baths," she said. Across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, she said, they're going for even more: around $105,000. As with more expensive properties, buyers are coming in with cash offers.

Hebert and Tibbetts both credit strict rules for the orderly appearance and relative peace of the park. Prospective residents submit to a background check and provide financial information, which is standard at mobile home parks. They also have a 45-minute interview with Hebert and sign a statement affirming that they have read and understood the rules.

"The Hartford PD loves us because they're almost never here," said Hebert. (Quechee is in Hartford.) He lives in an apartment in the community center and drives the park's roads each day to make sure everything is in order.

"I think having a resident manager is a big part of the reason we maintain the level of quality we do," he said.

Community rules prohibit firepits. ("I love them, but we're a forested park, and mobile homes burn a lot easier than stick-built homes," Hebert said.) Also barred are individual yard sales, though there's an annual park-wide sale. Residents can put up a shed, but it must conform in size, color and type to regulations established by the park's owner, who lives in Lebanon, N.H. Overnight guests are allowed only for 30 days a year, and they must undergo a background check and interview with Hebert.

click to enlarge Juanita Berger with her dog Skye - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Juanita Berger with her dog Skye

Tibbetts initially expected that living on her own for the first time in decades would be scary.

"When I moved in, all of my neighbors came over to me and introduced themselves," she said. "They asked me if I needed anything."

Over at the clubhouse, there's a notice about free meals. A small group of women alphabetizes the books by author. They also host an annual winter weekend event that includes a Sunday potluck. Before COVID-19, Hebert said, the residents' association held an annual outdoor summer party with a band.

Tall Timbers is just 15 minutes from Woodstock, a resort town with some of the highest home prices in Vermont. Griswold said several other well-maintained mobile home parks are tucked away nearby.

"The mobile home niche gives people options," she said.

— A.W.A.




A decade after Irene, still vulnerable

Tri-Park Cooperative Housing, Brattleboro • Established 1989;330 combined lots
click to enlarge Kay Curtis and her cat, Satie - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Kay Curtis and her cat, Satie

Mountain Home, a hilly neighborhood in Brattleboro's sprawling Tri-Park mobile home park, is a peaceful place on a summer day. Mature trees shade homes that were tucked into the hillsides half a century ago; black-eyed Susans and lilies abound.

Tri-Park, which is made up of three separate neighborhoods, was incorporated in 1989, when it took over three existing parks that had been established as far back as 1953. It's one of the largest privately owned, unsubsidized affordable housing entities in Vermont, with about 330 homes. The park is a co-op owned by its residents.

Tri-Park is showing its age. Over the last 20 years, a board that runs it, hesitant to raise rents on a low-income population, has deferred maintenance that would cost millions of dollars. As a result, the park is beset by complex problems that have drawn attention from local and state officials. One of the neighborhoods has a failed sewer pipe; two bridges need repairs.

In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused devastating flooding when brooks spilled their banks. It laid bare the need to move more than 40 homes to prevent loss of life and property in the next storm. While a consultant devised a master plan to fix some of the problems — and relocate many residents still living in the flood-prone areas — there's no clear route to paying for the work, which is expected to cost $9 million.

click to enlarge Kay Curtis picking up donated food in front of the Tri-Park Cooperative Housing office - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Kay Curtis picking up donated food in front of the Tri-Park Cooperative Housing office

"The people we attract are very, very low-income. They are people with no other options," said resident and former board president Kay Curtis, 69. An artist who worked in childcare, Curtis is one of those people, and she empathizes with those who have even less than her.

"When we tried to raise the rent by $7 a month, there was a big to-do about it," she said.

Under an agreement with the Town of Brattleboro, the board is on the hook to find new homes for residents in areas that flood. Last fall, the board hired consultant Dan Ridlehoover to come up with a plan.

Ridlehoover, manager of project development for the local consulting firm M&S Development, views the task as a complex exercise in fundraising, engineering and community relations. He's applying for various grants.

He's also talking to residents about moving away from their idyllic spots on the flood-prone Whetstone and Halladay brooks. Some are ready to move, he said, but many are skeptical that new homes will ever be provided, or they just want to stay put.

"One hundred percent of them have been evacuated from ice floes and Irene and a handful of flooding events," Ridlehoover said. "They'd never have to live through that again."

Curtis thinks the consultants will have a hard time getting everyone to move out of harm's way, particularly those who have lived in the same spot for 70 or 80 years.

Tri-Park is home to 8 percent of Brattleboro's population, or roughly one in 12 of its residents. Through a survey this year, Ridlehoover learned that 63 percent of its households earn about $33,000 annually for a family of two, less than half the area's median family income. Nearly three-quarters are over age 62. Part of the project's appeal for Ridlehoover is the prospect of helping those households, and others living on even less.

click to enlarge Bill Dion (left) and Robin Philbrick at Tri-Park - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Bill Dion (left) and Robin Philbrick at Tri-Park

"It's 8 percent who are used to being sort of systematically screwed and left out and let down and not helped," he said.

The 12-seat co-op board, which has only six sitting members and no president at the moment, includes three nonresidents with experience in housing policy. One is Mary Houghton, the advocate who says the state has a "lot of making up to do" for mobile home communities and who worked for the Burlington Community Land Trust for 20 years. Houghton is also on the board of the nonprofit Housing Foundation, which Vermont created in 1986 to purchase and operate mobile home parks that had been put up for sale. The foundation now owns communities containing 1,000 mobile home sites statewide.

A presentation that Houghton gave before the legislature in 2019 drew the interest of Sen. Balint, who helped the board get some of its debt forgiven, freeing up about $100,000 annually.

The park also got a federal appropriation worth $1.27 million in March, and there's more state funding available this year. Now, Ridlehoover is working with Efficiency Vermont to find affordable, energy-efficient mobile homes to put on higher ground.

— A.W.A




Death, taxes and water bills

Green Mountain Mobile Manor, Fair Haven • Established 1960; 20 lots
click to enlarge From left: Savannah Baptie; her baby, Dixie Bell; and her mother, Diane Ferguson - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • From left: Savannah Baptie; her baby, Dixie Bell; and her mother, Diane Ferguson

Green Mountain Mobile Manor has its share of problems, but resident Diane Ferguson loves where she lives.

Ferguson, a grandmother who works as a cook at a nearby senior center, moved in four years ago when the manager gave her a home in exchange for fixing it up. Now she pays $260 each month in lot rent for a two-bedroom mobile home that she shares with her dog and two cats. The park is on 5.9 verdant acres 20 miles west of Rutland.

"You have your own private yard; it's peaceful," she said. "When you're in an apartment, you have to hear the neighbors pound on the walls and their music up too loud."

But the future of Ferguson's home is uncertain. Green Mountain Mobile Manor is far behind on its federal and local taxes, and it's facing a host of other financial problems that mean the park could close or be sold. While local officials and state advocates are trying to help, there's a limit to what they can do.

click to enlarge Bonnie Lussier talking with Fair Haven town manager Joe Gunter - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Bonnie Lussier talking with Fair Haven town manager Joe Gunter

Green Mountain Mobile Manor's history is a matter of dispute, but most parties agree its problems began around seven years ago, when its owner, Rodney White, died. While his estate's still in probate, his longtime partner, Deborah Eddy, has been managing the property. It has room for 20 mobile homes, but just 11 occupied structures are there today.

Eddy hasn't been actively collecting rent payments. Four of the park residents are paying their monthly lot rent anyway, but several of their neighbors haven't paid in years, said Eddy, who lives elsewhere in Fair Haven. She is 69 and works full time selling outdoor umbrellas for Telescope Casual Furniture in nearby Granville, N.Y. She doesn't want to pursue the rent payments.

"I just work every day and don't have time," Eddy said.

In places, the park is littered with trash, scrap metal, junk cars and abandoned mobile homes, some nearly lost in the tall weeds. But a few backyards are neatly mowed, with well-tended gardens and sheds.

With little rent coming in, Eddy hasn't been paying the bills. Even if everyone did pay, she said, it wouldn't cover insurance, taxes and maintenance.

Mobile Manor fell so far behind on its water bills this summer that the Town of Fair Haven shut off the supply altogether. The Vermont State Housing Authority's Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program paid the overdue bill in July, and the water is running again. But there is no plan in place to keep paying, and the park's water infrastructure needs expensive reconstruction, said Caprice Hover, a VERAP project manager who has been working with Eddy.

The Internal Revenue Service placed a $150,000 lien on the park due to unpaid federal taxes, Eddy said. The park also owes the town more than $25,000 in back property taxes, said town manager Joe Gunter.

click to enlarge Mitchell Matteson (right) assisting his neighbor Chuck Delaney with a car project - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Mitchell Matteson (right) assisting his neighbor Chuck Delaney with a car project

The town could put the park up for tax sale this summer, but Gunter doesn't want to. He knows that if a private developer bought the land, they'd likely build housing that its current residents couldn't afford. Like most Vermont towns, Fair Haven is already short of affordable housing.

"If it could be cleaned up, it would be an asset to the town," Gunter said. "I'd love to see it managed properly."

Becoming a co-op is probably not an option because the park is too small, said Curry, the housing advocate. Its debt, as well as its condition, make it unattractive to buyers as a mobile home park.

"The Fair Haven park is a good example of a problem no one in Vermont has figured out how to solve yet," Curry said.

Chuck Delaney, who shares a mobile home with Ferguson, also loves the park. On a tour with Gunter, he pointed out places where he has parked junk vehicles so others can salvage parts. Where Gunter sees the opportunity to install more homes, potentially lowering the rent for all the residents, Delaney wants to keep those spaces open.

"I'm a country person; I don't like being tied up in a city," Delaney said. "If I move again, I'll buy a house out in the woods."

Eddy doesn't think she's the person to solve the park's problems, but she doesn't want to see it close.

"There are some people who have spent half their lives there," Eddy said. "I don't have any interest in making them find something different."

— A.W.A.




We bought a mobile home park

Farrugia Mobile Home Park, Cavendish • Date established: unknown; 8 lots
click to enlarge Melissa Stacy, co-owner of the Farrugia Mobile Home Park in Cavendish - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Melissa Stacy, co-owner of the Farrugia Mobile Home Park in Cavendish

Some houses come with a pool. Others, a garage. Melissa Stacy's came with a mobile home park.

Stacy and her partner, Jen Hathaway, purchased a four-acre property in Cavendish this summer. Their $475,000 bought a 3,600-square-foot house and the eight mobile home lots that flank it. 

The unusual arrangement represents a homecoming for Stacy, a Bellows Falls native who spent the last six years living in Massachusetts but had long hoped to buy a house back in Vermont. A pandemic-prompted shift to remote work allowed her family to finally make the leap.

They weren't looking for an investment property or to become landlords but decided to tour the Cavendish property on a whim, Stacy said: "We fell in love."

The house isn't fancy, but it has a lot of hard-to-find amenities: a three-car garage, an in-law suite for Stacy's 19-year-old daughter, built-in storage in almost every room. The secluded backyard with mountain views sealed the deal, offering a change from their Boston suburb. They closed on the property on June 9 and began moving in that same day. 

They also started learning what it takes to run a mobile home park. 

Stacy, who works as a lobbyist for a health care nonprofit, read through Vermont's regulations and reached out to the state with questions. She and her wife drove through some nearby parks to get a sense of what the communities look and feel like. 

They sent a letter to their tenants introducing themselves and making clear that they intended to keep running the park. That was a big relief to resident Ruth Sheldon, a 76-year-old retiree. "I was afraid that some out-of-stater would come in and close it," she said.

Sheldon, whose son lives in another mobile home on the property, described the park as a "live and let live" kind of place. She and her neighbors have all been there for at least a decade, while one couple has been there some 30 years. "We all stick to ourselves, but we look out for each other," she said.

The new owners seem to fit in just fine. "I only have good things to say about these people," she said. "They seem very nice, down-to-earth people."

Walking around the property about two months after they moved in, Stacy rattled off a lengthy to-do list. Much of it involves her personal living space: The main house still needs "a lot of work," and they have yet to decide what to do with the run-down three-story barn. 

But the mobile home operation could use some TLC, too, with two of its eight lots vacant.  

One is empty; the previous tenant's family removed her trailer from the property after she died a year or two ago, leaving behind a scarred patch of earth where weeds have sprouted. A half-gutted trailer sits in the other. Its deed came with the property, and Stacy entered it for the first time in late July to find windows and Sheetrock leaning against the wall, as if someone disappeared mid-rehab. 

"We have no clue on the history," she said with a shrug. "But as far as we know, no one has been in there for years."

They eventually want to remove it so that they can find new tenants, but Stacy said they're mainly focused on "beautification" efforts for now. That may include some new landscaping, Stacy said, since one of the tenants' primary requests was for more shade. 

In the short term, they plan to maintain the status quo wherever possible, starting with lot rent. Tenants will continue paying $329 monthly for at least the next year, Stacy said. "The people here are obviously happy," she said, referring to the tenants' longevity. "We want to keep them that way."

There has been one minor policy change, though. Tenants can now have pets, something the former owners prohibited. The thinking behind the move was quite simple, Stacy said: "I mean, it's their home."

— C.F.




A haven for the 55-and-up crowd

Williston Woods Cooperative Housing • Established 1983; 112 lots
click to enlarge Residents listening to the Milton Community Band in the activity center at Williston Woods - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Residents listening to the Milton Community Band in the activity center at Williston Woods

Williston Woods Cooperative Housing has always been a pretty desirable place to live — it's in a secluded location within five minutes of Taft Corners. The pandemic's housing boom has raised the stakes: Getting into this manufactured home park is now akin to winning the lottery. 

Seniors contact the park's property manager almost daily to ask whether anything new has hit the market. Realtors blanket the neighborhood with postcards pleading for their clients to be considered should anyone decide to sell.

"There are cars riding through here all the time looking," said Fran Streeter, 84, president of the housing cooperative that owns most of the neighborhood's 146 lots. 

click to enlarge Cheryl Walker tending to her gardens - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Cheryl Walker tending to her gardens

Prices have risen with the demand; homes are going for close to $200,000 now, three to four times more than what the original owners paid. But in a market where condos half their size sell for far more, Williston Woods represents one of Chittenden County's truly affordable retirement communities — and many new residents say they had to wait years for a place.

Built mostly in the 1980s and '90s, the development is carved out of dense forestland, with double-wide homes — those at least twice the size of a typical mobile home — spread out across a network of five private streets. Most lots feature decent-size lawns, paved driveways and stand-alone garages, and some, including Streeter's, even have big front porches — all of which contribute to a distinct suburban quality that many downsizers find appealing. 

"When you get to old age, it isn't all about the big house anymore," Streeter said in her living room one day last month, as "The Price Is Right" played on her television. 

click to enlarge From left: Fran Streeter, Cheryl Walker and Caroline Ford working on a puzzle - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • From left: Fran Streeter, Cheryl Walker and Caroline Ford working on a puzzle

Streeter and her late husband were among the first to move into Williston Woods nearly 40 years ago. (She was only 45 at the time but benefited from a brief relaxation of the age restriction.) 

Much has changed since then. In 1993, most of the park's households formed a co-op to purchase their section of the development. Residents pitched in $2,500 toward a down payment on a $2.2 million loan.

The co-op now owns 112 of the park's 146 lots, with each household considered a shareholder. A homeowners' association covers the rest of the lots, where residents own their houses and the land. 

A $314 lot rent — or carrying fee — covers the co-op's mortgage payments and property management services. The fee also helps keep the lights on at the activity center, a 5,000-square-foot building in the heart of the neighborhood that serves as a de facto senior center for residents. 

Its large kitchen can be rented out for private parties, and a spacious dining hall hosts a range of events, from a weekly cornhole league to an annual bazaar. People drop by to shoot pool, play ping-pong or borrow books from a small library. 

click to enlarge Cheryl Walker's home in Williston Woods - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Cheryl Walker's home in Williston Woods

"We try to keep it interesting," said Caroline Ford, 84, on a tour of the center last month.  

Of course, not everything at Williston Woods is fun and games. Like at any housing cooperative, the board deals with its share of headaches, mostly financial. 

"We have to pay for the streetlights. We have to plow our own road. We have five huge septic systems we have to maintain, which are very costly," Streeter said. "And if anything goes wrong, we're on our own."

Most pressing these days is a new state stormwater rule for properties with three acres or more of impervious surface. Compliance could cost Williston Woods $650,000, according to a recent estimate. The board, with the help of Cathedral Square, a nonprofit housing agency that manages the property, is lobbying the state for assistance.

Ford and Streeter joined the board two decades ago, and they have helped steer the co-op through changes. Their terms are up this year, but both have agreed to seek additional three-year terms. Their efforts seem to be appreciated; both are running uncontested. 

"We've worked hard to keep this the unique place that it is," Streeter said.

— C.F.




In the way of progress?

Otter Creek Mobile Home Park, Vergennes • Established 1960; 73 lots
click to enlarge Otter Creek Mobile Home Park - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Otter Creek Mobile Home Park

Michelle and Glen Eastman purchased a trailer in 2012 at the Otter Creek Mobile Home Park as part of their retirement strategy. "We bought this place to be our forever home," said Michelle, who has spent her entire life in Vergennes.

Until he retires, Glen, 53, who doesn't drive, can walk to his nearby workplace, Collins Aerospace. The Eastmans plan to expand their walkway and widen their shower so that they can age comfortably in the town they love. 

But now there's a project looming that could drive a truck through — or at least right alongside — the Eastmans' carefully constructed retirement plan. A task force managed by the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Addison County Regional Planning Commission is studying the idea of building a multimillion-dollar bypass that would keep trucks out of downtown Vergennes by routing them past the mobile home park. City officials say its construction would be at least 10 to 15 years off, but Michelle, 55, worries: "That's right when our retirement starts."

Many in Vergennes view the bypass as critical. More than 800 noisy trucks a day can growl through its quaint downtown on Route 22A.

 Plans to divert them have been in the works for more than 20 years. Prior studies were undertaken in 1995, 2002 and 2019. The latest one aims to consider the impact on the community, economy and environment from the perspective of local stakeholders such as the Otter Creek Park residents.

The park is only about a mile from downtown Vergennes, between a meadow and the winding Otter Creek. The homes are close-set; residents personalize their lots with flags and plants. In 1991, it became the first mobile home park to be purchased by the affordable housing nonprofit Addison County Community Trust. 

Elise Shanbacker, executive director of the trust, said applications are always coming in for units. For Vergennes, which has a median household income of $63,920, the park offers much needed affordable housing stock.

Some residents of Otter Creek feel targeted. Despite assurances that the bypass would not go directly through the park and that traffic would be slow, they've piped up at local forums about air and noise pollution. 

The study's task force organized a community listening session under a large tent at the park in May. Adam Lougee, executive director of the regional planning commission and chair of the task force, said that compared to the previous study efforts, "We're making a real effort to reach out to people at Otter Creek Park."

But while Michelle appreciates the attempt, she felt the session was too little, too late.

"We weren't notified at all. It was very sneaky," she said. "I knew that if they needed the land, they would just tell us to move our trailers." Michelle was disappointed the meeting did not include a Q&A session. She wanted to hear her neighbors' thoughts.

Michelle knows it will be a long time before any decision is made. But she is worried. "I'm not one of those not-in-my-backyard people," she said. "I just don't want my home taken away."

— R.H.




It takes a village?

Westbury Park, Colchester •Established 1972; 250 lots
click to enlarge Susan Lemieux in her garden - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Susan Lemieux in her garden

Streets need paving, septic systems need replacing: Running a mobile home park can be like running a small village. And that's exactly what one of the largest parks in the state wants to become.

Some residents of Westbury Park, a 250-lot community in Colchester, are seeking authority to form their own municipality, an unprecedented move that could lead to the creation of Vermont's first new village in more than 70 years.

The new government would be located within the Town of Colchester, in the same way that Essex Junction was, until recently, a village inside of the Town of Essex. It would work hand in hand with the housing cooperative that owns Westbury — which the residents themselves run — but would also be able to levy taxes and apply for state and federal grants. 

The park is certainly big enough to constitute a village by Vermont standards. Its population of 600 eclipses that of dozens of towns, and its web of 19 private streets is complex enough that the co-op's president, Gayle Pezzo, insisted on accompanying a visiting reporter for a drive around the grounds. ("You'll get lost," she said.) 

Forming a village could unlock new funding sources that would help keep costs down for residents. But the move would also create quite a bit of bureaucracy for a very small group. Pezzo and other proponents have spent the last year researching the idea and are in the early stages of pitching it to their neighbors. 

click to enlarge Kids playing in the pool at Westbury Park - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Kids playing in the pool at Westbury Park

It's not the first time Westbury residents have been asked to take a leap of faith. In 2018, the park's owner listed it for sale, spurring fears that the coveted land could be sold to a developer who would displace them to construct more expensive housing.

Residents scrambled to form a housing co-op and bought the property themselves for $11.2 million. That gave them control over the park's future but also meant they became responsible for addressing ongoing maintenance and infrastructure needs, some of which had been put off under the previous, for-profit ownership.

Three years later, the park's needs have only increased. "We have electrical problems; we have water pipes breaking," Pezzo acknowledged. A multiyear effort to replace outdated electrical hookups at every lot alone will cost millions.

The co-op could take out private loans, but they wouldn't come cheap. Meanwhile, the co-op has already been forced to raise monthly lot rent $42 since the sale to help cover payments on the new mortgage, pushing the fee up to $503 — one of the highest in the state. 

That's where the village idea comes in. 

The primary benefit would be the ability to finance projects with low-interest bonds and to compete for the government grants that flow to municipalities — but not to mobile home communities — each year.

Proponents envision Westbury the village as a limited government that would only handle services it could provide more cheaply than the co-op. Maintenance of the park's water system would likely be the first priority, Pezzo said, since the state offers assistance for that.

click to enlarge Gayle Pezzo working to establish Westbury Park as its own village in Colchester - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Gayle Pezzo working to establish Westbury Park as its own village in Colchester

Ralph Perkins, a civic-minded Colchester resident who doesn't live in the park but said he "love[s] a challenge," has been helping Pezzo with the project. The two have been holding "office hours" at the park's administrative building to chat with interested residents and, this month, will begin collecting signatures on a petition requesting that the town form the village.

The Town of Colchester has yet to take a public stance on the idea, but any opposition likely wouldn't make a difference: Vermont law allows villages to form with or without the surrounding town's buy-in. Still, Pezzo and Perkins say they're hoping to bring the town aboard, believing that would make the project succeed.

Most important, Pezzo said, is that residents understand what they're getting into before any vote.

"We have to be really diligent about providing all the information — and providing it thoroughly and accurately," Pezzo said. "I don't want to get tarred and feathered," she added with a laugh. "They all know where I live."

— C.F.

Locked Out logoSeven Days is examining Vermont's housing crisis — and what can be done about it — in our Locked Out series this year. Send tips to lockedout@sevendaysvt.com. These stories are supported by a grant from the nonprofit Journalism Funding Partners, which leverages philanthropy and fundraising to boost local reporting.
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About The Authors

Colin Flanders

Colin Flanders

Bio:
Colin Flanders is a political reporter at Seven Days, covering the Statehouse. He previously worked as a reporter at a group of Chittenden County weekly newspapers covering Essex, Milton and Colchester.
Rachel Hellman

Rachel Hellman

Bio:
Staff reporter Rachel Hellman covers Vermont towns for Seven Days. She is a 2020 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, and her work has been published in the Guardian, the Boston Globe and Backpacker. Rachel is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Find out more at reportforamerica.org.
Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen

Bio:
Anne Wallace Allen covers breaking news and business stories for Seven Days. She was the editor at the Idaho Business Review and a reporter for VTDigger and the Associated Press in Montpelier.

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