Aspen Heights offers more money to Regency mobile home park residents

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 | 12:10 a.m. CST; updated 2:03 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 17, 2011
Charlie Vatterott, vice president of development at Aspen Heights, a development company from Austin, Texas, hands out forms on Tuesday for Regency residents to sign saying that they are in favor of City Council rezoning the Regency property. Aspen Heights offered residents a moving stipend of $1,800 for single-wide trailers with an additional $500 for signing at the meeting held Tuesday night, along with an extended move-out date of April for all residents if the property is rezoned by City Council at their next meeting Nov. 21.

*This story has been modified to more clearly explain language that was included on the document Aspen Heights asked residents of Columbia Regency to sign. A PDF of that document accompanies this story.

COLUMBIA — With the Columbia City Council monitoring the negotiation between the residents of Columbia Regency mobile home park and Aspen Heights, Aspen Heights responded.

Charlie Vatterott, vice president of development for Aspen Heights, announced to a crowd of about 60 residents Tuesday that Aspen Heights is increasing its previous offer of assistance. He offered $1,800 to the owner of each single-wide trailer and $3,000 to the owner of each double-wide trailer. He offered residents until the end of April to move out and until the end of May for those with school-age children so the children could complete the school year.


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He also offered them an additional $500 each if they would sign a paper saying they supported the rezoning. The document, however, only asked the residents to indicate whether they were in favor of receiving financial assistance to move trailers and of being given extra time to relocate. Vatterot said signatures would imply support for the zoning request and would be presented to the council.*

The council is scheduled to vote Nov. 21 on whether to rezone the land the mobile home park is on. The land is owned by Regency of Missouri, Inc., and Aspen Heights plans to buy the land and build student apartments.

Residents of the park are caught in the middle. They have been fighting against the rezoning in order to save their homes, but when Regency of Missouri issued notices announcing the park will close on March 1, the chance of saving the park became slim.

The money Vatterott offered is a significant change from previous Aspen Heights proposals. An amendment earlier in the process promised $1,200 per trailer, regardless of width. It also did not extend time for families with school-age children beyond the April deadline.

Mayor Bob McDavid recently told the Missourian that he wants the resident issue resolved before the rezoning comes before the council, even suggesting that it might be tabled if an agreement wasn't reached.

During the meeting, Vatterott said if the rezoning is tabled, "It's over." He said the rezoning wouldn't be readdressed until March, when the residents would already be out of the park.

Vatterott started the meeting perched at the edge of a table. He was wearing blue jeans, a dark blue plaid shirt with red and light blue lines marking the squares and a forest green outdoor jacket. His outfit was a far cry from the suit he wore to the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Sept. 22.

He began by introducing various people assembled, including Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, attorneys with Aspen Heights and Michael Carney of Mid-Missouri Legal Services, who is representing some residents of the park. After people in the room began asking who he was, he introduced himself.

Vatterott apologized to residents for having to find out about the rezoning from the newspaper. He said Aspen Heights had signed a confidentiality agreement, requiring that it not inform residents of the process. He also said the deal to buy the property has not closed.

After answering a few questions from the residents packed into the room and out into the hallway on folding chairs, he introduced Aspen Heights' new incentives.

"Whether it gets rezoned or not, the park is closing," Vatterott said.  

When questions of the validity of his offer arose, Vatterott said he was committing Aspen Heights to the deal there in the room, in front of the press and Hoppe.  

Hoppe said after the meeting that she went to watch the discussion between residents and Aspen Heights, and it would "weigh heavily" on her decision.

The crowd disagreed at first about whether the offer was good. People began to shout for the crowd to quiet. Vatterott tried to answer one interjection or question at a time. 

"We're not obligated to help you," Vatterott said right before so many people began speaking that park management entered the room and said if people weren't orderly, they would be kicked out.

As everyone quieted, resident Henry Pietrzak asked Vatterott if he could approach him. Pietrzak, wearing a camouflage jacket and baseball cap, handed Vatterott a small stack of papers and asked him to read them aloud.

Vatterott read out numbers Pietrzak had collected about the price to move trailers, with figures for both single- and double-wide trailers. His numbers included costs to move within 20 miles, to move sheds, for electrical work and more. Pietrzak said he had done his homework and pointed out that the costs are "way higher" than the money Aspen Heights is offering.

In response, Vatterott said what Aspen Heights is offering is higher than what Regency of Missouri is offering: nothing.

"I can tell ya," Vatterott said, "he wants to clean out the property, whether he sells it to me or not."

It wasn't long before the crowd began accusing Vatterott of trying to buy their votes. Lorna Brown, a resident of the park, said buying votes was against the Constitution.  

Vatterott encouraged residents to talk to an independent source before signing the papers, though he needed them signed Tuesday night.  

The forms were pre-written with blanks for people to fill out their circumstances, and Vatterott said to mark out the April date and write in "May 31" if they had school-age children.  

He also asked them to note if they plan to abandon their trailer so he had permission to remove it. Vatterott said Aspen Heights will take over costs for removing trailers that can't be moved.

Mary Hussmann of Grass Roots Organizing asked if residents could have more time to make up their minds. Vatterott said the papers needed to be signed Tuesday so the mayor and council could see if residents supported the rezoning.  

When Vatterott mentioned Hussmann was there later in the meeting, Hussmann made it clear she did not support the rezoning.

"You asked for my support, too, but that didn't happen," Hussmann said. 

Much of the discussion centered on specifics of the deal that weren't in writing, such as how long the residents would have to remain in the park to qualify for the incentives and how the incentives would be received.

Eventually, yells from the crowd began to make it clear that the majority would sign to support the rezoning, and Vatterott began to provide the forms.

There was a disturbance when someone who had been outside came in yelling that a trailer was on fire. Most people in the room ran outside over the soft mud of the park playground to look at a trailer adjacent to the clubhouse. Though flames had apparently been visible, they died down. The fire department responded but left not long after.

Though some remained outside to watch the process, most went back in and either signed or made it clear why they wouldn't.  

Mary Kelley signed a form. She recently lost her job for taking off work while trying to save the park. She's now simultaneously applying for jobs and places to move the trailer she is $100 away from paying off. Kelley said the extra money will help her.

Anne Boroff signed a form. She spent both before and after the meeting smoking to calm her nerves though she's on a prescription medicine to help her quit. The money from Aspen Heights will help her move. She is going to give her trailer away to another resident of the park whose trailer is in worse condition.

Deron Todd signed. He already had plans to move out soon.

Pietrzak didn't sign. He isn't satisfied with the amount of money Aspen Heights is offering. 

Michael Brown didn't sign. He said it's a matter of principle for him not to be bought out.

Lorna Brown didn't sign.

"They're not buying my vote," she said. Brown had several reasons for continuing to oppose the rezoning, from the trees in the park to the fact that she can't afford to move into an apartment. She also didn't like it on principle.

"I've figured out a long time ago that money isn't everything," she said, "because you've got to be able to sleep at night."

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Gary Straub November 16, 2011 | 10:09 a.m.

Another out of state company buying out our community, and will never give back. They will bring in their own materials, their own labor and take their profits out of the community and state. Maybe the city council should just put the whole town up for sale. These tactics are reminiscent of the land grab days that made so much fodder for the western movies of last century. What ever happened to planning for the future, with no urban sprawl?

(Report Comment)
mike mentor November 16, 2011 | 10:42 a.m.

Isn't there an out of state ex-con that owns this now and lets it get worse and worse while skimming as much as he can and returning nothing to the park?

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 16, 2011 | 11:52 a.m.

("OXFORD PINES — The Oxford Pines
...The Oxford Pines Regency mobile home park is owned by a company called Regency of Maine, which is headquartered in Carbondale, Colorado. That company, and similarly-named entities, such as "Regency of Texas," operate 33 trailer parks across the country under an umbrella corporation called the Churchill Group, Incorporated.

The Churchill Group is owned by 70-year-old George Gradow, who is a millionaire, a real estate developer, and an ex-con.

Gradow has been married for over 30 years to Barbara Klein, more well-known as former Hugh Hefner girlfriend and Playboy cover girl Barbi Benton.

In 2006, Gradow was sentenced to 15 months in prison for tax fraud, after he admitted to changing documents in a failed bid to fool the IRS. During the court proceedings, Gradow's lawyers argued that he suffered from anxiety and depression, and a psychiatrist testified that Gradow had seriously considered suicide. Lawyers for the IRS disputed these claims.

Gradow was released in July of 2007, and, in 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gradow had listed his LA-based mansion, located in the Bel-Air district, for $17.5 million.

Over the last few months, the Churchill Group has come under investigation for fraudulent activities in both Iowa and Kansas, where a former park manager blew the whistle on a variety of illegal activities. The whistle-blower, Vernon Thorn, documented many questionable and illegal practices, including the sale of homes that the park did not actually own, failure to disclose back taxes, and rampant health and safety violations.")
Source & more:

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 16, 2011 | 11:57 a.m.

None of us really owns the land our home is on. The government can always declare eminent domain or take the home and land if taxes aren't paid.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 16, 2011 | 12:32 p.m.

("We're not obligated to help you," Vatterott said right before so many people began speaking that park management entered the room and said if people weren't orderly, they would be kicked out.")
Then why offer the trailer park residents money?
To shut them up?
To buy a favorable rezoning vote?
I hope the city council does not rezone the property for a 1,000 student apartment complex, no matter what.
Columbia does not have 1,000 homeless students camping out down by the river and a 1,000 student apartment complex will only hurt those landlords who currently rent, including residential home owners and the apartment complexes all ready constructed.
The housing situation in Columbia is over-inventoried and students running to rent the newest units hurt existing neighborhoods where homes and rentals were built during the last ten years.

(Report Comment)
John Hardon November 16, 2011 | 12:43 p.m.

Said a property owner.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin November 16, 2011 | 1:07 p.m.

Gradow, for letting the place run down; the city, for not enforcing codes and laws; and Aspen, with their money already offered, should ALL contribute to relocating these people. Anyone at Regency deliberately violating rules and laws shouldn't get the help.

Call it Stupid Tax, shared by all those who let this situation get so horrendous (why should Aspen pay the entire bill?) Columbia can and should have done a whole lot better.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 16, 2011 | 1:18 p.m.

"Anyone at Regency deliberately violating rules and laws shouldn't get the help."

How hard would it be for you to get the number of police calls -- monthly average, yearly total, something like that -- to Regency over the past few years? Is that public information?

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 16, 2011 | 1:58 p.m.

Try this for starters:

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis November 16, 2011 | 3:29 p.m.

I always wonder what people mean when they say the city should pay to relocate these people. Who in the city? If the city is going to pay for this, that means our taxes would pay for it. Our tax dollars are stretched far enough without tacking this on. I also don't think I should be taxed to relocate anyone I had nothing to do with this park. This park has been talking about closing for years so why was this not planned for long ago? And who in the city is responsible exactly? I was under the impression the owner of the land was responsible for up keep of the land. The city doesn't come out and take care of my house or yard, but will let me know when I'm violating an ordinance.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin November 16, 2011 | 5:28 p.m.

Sally: Apparently you haven't been paying attention to this story as it has unfolded since January. With 250 health code violations and 180 property maintenance code violations, owner George Gradow was sitting on a total of 430 city-issued violations, all of them attached to fines and other penalties that were never levied.

In other words, City Hall fell down on the job, and let this situation metastasize into the cancer it became.

Council and management are too damn busy building new office space and new parking garages (which your taxes also paid for) to fund extra staff for the Office of Neighborhood Services and the Health Department, the two agencies who issued the fines and are charged with enforcing them.

Have you complained about your tax dollars going for garage after garage? Have you complained that they've spent nearly $35 million of your tax money on new office space for senior City staff? If not, why is helping clean up Regency such a taxing proposition? We're talking a few thousand -- rather than a few million -- dollars.

If the City falls down on the job, they need to make up for it just like everyone else. If you, as a taxpayer, don't like that, then complain down at City Hall or to your Council person. Then maybe next time, they'll think twice before letting a situation like this explode in all of our faces.

(Report Comment)
John Hardon November 16, 2011 | 10:12 p.m.

If the city owes it is because the city has interfered with the free market by disallowing the construction of new parks for the mobile homes while allowing continued sales of mobile homes and allowing the closure of parks, thereby ignoring the rights or needs of those who own the mobile homes that they allowed.

The offer made by the would be new owner who is shutting the park down abates much of my criticism because it contains enough money in rent reduction, buyout, and bribe to offset the cost of moving and because those homes that are in too poor condition to move should be considered worth less than the buyout.

The concerns made about the potential for the housing market being flooded with too many units are made by those who are trying to protect the overinflated values of their own homes at the expense of others and at the expense of the free market. Hundreds of new units should put a downward pressure on rents allowing those who choose to leave their homes a better chance to find affordable housing to rent or purchase. This deal represents the best possible outcome. The city should allow for the rezoning but hold the company to the obligation it made.

(Report Comment)
Steve Baumann November 17, 2011 | 6:09 a.m.

Must be a lot and I mean A LOT of money in building student housing!

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis November 17, 2011 | 8:40 a.m.

@ Mike: I guess my question is the city did go out and find violations as you had noted the next step for anyone else would have been, what a temporary eviction? That would have given the tenant time to fix the problems. If that went without response it would have been a permanent eviction and isn't that why everyone is so mad here to begin with, because the tenants are being evicted? So the city seemed to have been caught between a rock and a hard place on what steps to take.

(Report Comment)
Gary Straub November 17, 2011 | 10:11 a.m.

"The concerns made about the potential for the housing market being flooded with too many units are made by those who are trying to protect the overinflated values of their own homes at the expense of others and at the expense of the free market."
This is ludicrous, as these new "free market" developments do exactly the opposite. The new scam by these student housing companies is to not rent the apartment but bedrooms in the apartment. The idea is that Johnny would only pay $3-400+ per month for a place to stay, and that sounds reasonable, except that Pete, Larry, and Suzie are also paying that but they all live in the same apartment. So a 3-4 bedroom apartment that normally would rent for $5-800 per month now rents for twice that. And these companies take their money out of state to a state with no or favorable taxes. So they screw our community, our state and the students. On top of this, our community gets a double whammy, because of imported labor, imported materials, and very shoddy workmanship, leaving us with no revenue to remove the blight they will leave after there 5-10 year lifespan. If that is the kind of society the "free market, caveat emptor, whatever the market will bear" folks want then I suspect we are all in for a pretty desolate future.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 17, 2011 | 10:26 a.m.

@ Steve Baumann:

Two groups of Americans particularly vulnerable to being fleeced when it comes to temporary housing are college students and armed services members with families.

Boone County offers examples involving college students.

Pulaski County (Fort Leonard Wood) offers examples involving armed services personnel.

Phelps County (Rolla) offers examples of BOTH college students (MS&T) and armed services personnel (Fort Leonard Wood) IN COMPETITION for available housing.

Anyone at MU doing a thesis on the subject won't need to leave the state to do their research. We don't recommend doing research in the countryside in Phelps or Pulaski counties during deer season.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 17, 2011 | 11:04 a.m.

Every year, as incoming students opt for the brand spanking new apartments or duplex rentals, the graduating students leave behind more undesired places which eventually breed slum lords, section 8 and other lower income markets where crime and poor upkeep flourishes as our public schools and local businesses begin to see an influx of those who have "burned bridges" in Kansas City, St. Louis and other inner city areas to take advantage of the easy pickings throughout Columbia.
Building new student housing only destroys the quality of neighborhoods throughout Columbia and increases "White Flight" as developers move on to their next student housing project which perpetuates this cycle of new student housing projects vs. over inventory of residences.
The value of homes in Columbia is at an all time low. A new student housing development for 1,000 will only hurt existing property values and the desirability of these existing properties even more.
The decision of the city council to rezone this trailer park should not be determined by the new owner of the park or by the current residents who will be evicted and sign their loyalty over to the new owner's checkbook. The city council should be in-line with what was discussed at the planning & zoning commission and have the mettle to make a decision that is best for all of Columbia and not just a developer who has connections.

(Report Comment)

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