Someone's trash, everyone's burden

Mid-Missouri struggles to combat the high number of abandoned mobile homes.
Sunday, February 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:15 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Brenda Tucker didn’t mind her new neighbors at first, provided they left soon. But four years later, they haven’t left. In fact, they’ve grown in number.

“It’s disgusting,” said Tucker, who lives on Big Rock Drive northwest of Millersburg in Callaway County. “I don’t even like to go in my front yard.”

Tucker suffers from a problem that’s becoming increasingly common in mid-Missouri. Abandoned mobile homes, such as the 30-some across the road from Tucker’s home, are expensive to remove, ugly to look at and difficult for local and state officials to handle.

Rusty metal, rotting wood and disintegrating trailers without roofs or walls confront Tucker as she leaves her home each morning. It is a stark contrast from the vacant, tree-lined pasture that once graced her view. The trailers remain visible for almost half a mile as she turns left down County Road 259 toward Route WW.

“Its embarrassing to tell people where I live because they know that’s where all that junk is,” Tucker said. “Not to mention, my property value is shot, too.”

James Rapier, who also lives on Big Rock, understands the loss of property value. He’s been trying to sell his house but can’t get anyone to even look at it. Rapier said neighborhood residents have filed a complaint with Callaway County commissioners and have spoken with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, but to no avail.

Big Rock residents are not alone: Plenty of junk trailers are piling up on sites across mid-Missouri. Matt Harline, planner for Solid Waste Management Region H, said there might be thousands of abandoned trailers in the area.

Most are in Callaway County, and a lack of zoning rules is partly to blame. Callaway voters have rejected planning and zoning twice: once in the 1970s and most recently in April 1995. Plus, Callaway has more mobile-home owners than any of the counties without zoning that border Boone. According to the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis in Columbia, 21.7 percent of all residences in Callaway are occupied mobile homes, compared to 8.7 percent in Boone.

Zoning regulations help stem the problem of junk trailers in Boone County, but it’s still a matter local officials ought to deal with, Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin said.

“It is less of an issue in Boone, but it is still an issue,” Elkin said. “I don’t want to push all of our trash onto our neighbors. That’s not good stewardship.”

Since 2000, three trailer parks have shut down in Columbia, the most recent being Crestvale Mobile Home Park in July. The closures left more than 200 trailers without lots. Many owners, unable to cover the cost of moving their homes, simply left them behind.

“The problem exists when mobile parks close down and these trailers are pulled out,” Elkin said. “Some of them end up in the country.”

It’s impossible to find all the abandoned trailers because most stand alone or in pairs, not in piles like at Big Rock, Harline said. And some trailers that might appear abandoned are instead being used as offices at construction sites, as warehouses or even as hunting blinds or cabins.

Harline cited a North Carolina study that estimated 6.9 percent of all trailers in that state were abandoned. Using a conservative estimate of 5 percent here, Harline said there could be as many as 687 abandoned trailers in District H alone. The district includes Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Osage counties.

Counties with zoning can regulate how many trailers are allowed on a single property, so they don’t have to go to the DNR for help.

“Like with junk cars, planning and zoning can have restricted areas and then charge the owner on their taxes the cost of removing the trailers,” DNR environmental specialist Larry Slechta said. “I’m not saying I’m in favor or against planning and zoning, but that’s one way to handle it.”

In counties without zoning, DNR moves in only after a complaint has been filed. But Slechta said very few complaints about trailers come to his agency.

“People, I don’t think, necessarily know what they can do about it,” he said.

Even with a complaint, trailers can be removed only if DNR proves that the owner has absolutely no use for the material.

“They’re a dinosaur,” Slechta said. “They’re terrible, these old nasty things, but all a person has to say is this is my warehouse. We can’t rate aesthetics.”

People often pile abandoned trailers on empty lots with every intention of salvaging scrap from them, said DNR environmental specialist Valerie Garrett. But plans often go awry, as in the Big Rock Drive case that Garrett worked on.

Garrett said a man by the name of Wally Cox hauled the trailers to the Big Rock Drive site after buying the land from Bert Kunzler of Columbia. A legal dispute over the land ensued, however, and Cox wound up neither salvaging the trailers nor removing them after warnings from the DNR.

Neither Cox nor Kunzler could be reached for comment.

“It frequently happens where people collect materials with the intent on recycling them, and then they don’t carry it out for various reasons,” said Laurie Bobbitt, DNR enforcement unit chief.

Disposing of old trailers can be expensive even with the sale of salvaged parts. The North Carolina report cited by Harline said the average mobile home yields about $330 worth of salvageable material. That leaves a lot of junk to get rid of.

The cost of a mobile home ranges from about $2,000 for a used one to $80,000 for a top-of-the-line, new model. Disposal of old trailers is expensive and difficult.

The Columbia landfill, for example, charges $37.50 per ton of refuse, but the size of its scale prevents it from accepting items wider than 12 feet.

Mover Ted Anderson charges $250 to $500 to move a trailer, depending on the size and distance. The price can go higher if, for example, the trailer lacks wheels. Anderson said he turned down a customer in February because his trailer was 14 feet wide and the landfill wouldn’t take it.

Money is also a hindrance for government agencies trying to get a grip on the problem. Harline, the only full-time paid employee at his office, works on a small budget. While District H is associated with DNR, it lacks enforcement authority and is funded separately.

DNR, meanwhile, is also struggling with a tight budget.

“I wish we had the money to do these cleanups, but we don’t,” Slechta said.

Garrett said that when people can’t afford to remove trailers, DNR typically waives fines in exchange for eventual compliance.

“We work with the people to find solutions,” Bobbitt said. “We’re not an ogre operation. We try to be reasonable.”

Harline said it’s not only money, but also mind-set, that confounds cleanup efforts. Junk trailers, he said, pose an interesting question of responsibility.

“Mobile homes, like computers, cars and refrigerators, are all useful items built to be durable, but eventually (they) become useless and a disposal problem once they malfunction,” he said. “The question becomes ‘Who bears the responsibility for cleaning up the mess?’ Certainly, the consumer bears most of the responsibility, but what powers should the government have to assure proper disposal?

“We as a society do not consider the costs of disposal of things we buy.”

Elkin wants to force consumers to consider that cost. He cited the recently expired fee for disposing of old tires as an example.

“I’d like to see something like that for trailers,” Elkin said. “I know that’s probably not popular, but it needs to be done.”

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james brown November 18, 2008 | 4:42 p.m.

i would like to buy one of your junk trailers to use as an add. to my trailer please email me about it

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