COLUMBIA — Residents of El Ray Mobile Home Park received their monthly rent bill last week, along with a note informing them the park would be shut down on March 1.
Whirlwind Properties, the company that owns El Ray Mobile Home Park, which is located on Mexico Gravel Road, wrote that it "had been informed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that the lagoon on the property can no longer sustain the park."
Larry Whitmarsh, who lives with his grandparents at El Ray, said the sewer lagoon has been draining into a nearby creek. But Whitmarsh said that if manager and co-owner Ron Netemeyer had taken care of it earlier, the problem never would have gotten so bad.
Netemeyer said the lagoon is just old. “The state of Missouri wants us to close down. I don’t want to close down the park. (The lagoon) is a huge problem for the tenants and for the owner of the property — me.”
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has been trying to work with the owners of El Ray since 2008, said Renee Bungart, a spokeswoman for the department.
Bungart said the state issued an operating permit to El Ray in 2007. It requires the park to follow certain state and federal guidelines. When the park was inspected in 2008, the natural resources department found the sewer lagoon did not comply with state guidelines and issued the owners a notice of violation.
Problems cited in the violation notice included failure on the owners' part to submit quarterly discharge monitoring reports, solids and debris observed escaping the lagoon, a lack of warning signs near the lagoon and inadequate fencing around the area.
“Operation and maintenance of the lagoon was not up to standards,” Bungart said.
A second notice of violation was issued on Dec. 1, 2009. Since the lagoon at El Ray was unable to comply with state guidelines, the case was referred to the Attorney General's Office in September.
Bungart compared the deteriorating status of the lagoon to maintaining a car. If you don’t regularly maintain it, the problems add up and get worse. The natural resources department tries to ensure the lagoon complies with guidelines, but "it’s not the (Department of Natural Resources) that’s trying to remove these individuals from the mobile home park," Bungart said.
The letter notifying El Ray residents of the park’s pending closure offered them the chance to live at Sunset Mobile Home Park or Ed’s Mobile Home Park, both on Lenior Street and owned by Whirlwind Properties. Anybody at El Ray who chooses to move to Sunset or Ed’s will have his or her lot rent waived for the first three months at the new park, the owners said.
“We’re doing everything we can to try to help,” Netemeyer said, adding later that those who choose not to move to Sunset or Ed's will be on their own. He visited El Ray residents Saturday, knocking on every door, to speak with them about the park closure.
Netemeyer said that after the park is closed, he plans to shut down the lagoon and eliminate the hazard. After that, he said, “I don’t have any plans for the property.”
Netemeyer added that he’s not planning on developing Sunset or Ed’s either. The two properties were annexed by the city and zoned for commercial use in 2007 but have continued to operate as mobile home parks.
Rick Huffman, who's lived at El Ray for eight years, said he thinks the owners are using the lagoon as an excuse to shut down the park. He said he won't move to Sunset or Ed’s because he’s worried that they, too, will be shut down. He is planning to tear down his trailer and rent a house within the next few months.
“This trailer won’t move,” Huffman said, pointing to visible wear on his single-wide. “I’d rather have my last three months’ rent free (at El Ray), when I really need it.”
Huffman said he wasn't surprised by news of the park's closure. He said he's noticed a lot of people moving out of the park recently.
Randy Nowlin said he has lived at El Ray for about 12 years. He previously spent 14 years at another mobile home park that was shut down.
Nowlin was disappointed the park would be shut down during winter. "I wish we had more time," he said.
Nowlin plans to try to sell his mobile home and buy a house, rather than move to another mobile home park. Besides, Nowlin added, he didn’t see the other mobile home parks being open much longer.
“This makes the second time I’ve been kicked out of a mobile home court,” Nowlin said. He doesn't want it to happen a third time.
“I’ve been wanting to get out of the trailer court,” Nowlin said, “but not like this.”