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.
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."