Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Tropicana Village Mobile Home Park
Jim and Sharon Smith moved into the Tropicana Village Mobile Home Park five years ago, expecting to spend the rest of their lives in one of the oldest mobile home communities in the valley.
They spent $10,000 to landscape their rented property, planting pink rose bushes and green shrubbery, erecting a chain-link fence and pouring 15 tons of pebbles and handmade steppingstones to xeriscape and beautify the dirt yard on Lot 341. The couple, originally from Sacramento, also made improvements to their $50,000 double-wide mobile home, adding new roofing, a water heater and a surround sound system.
“After that was all done, I thought, now I can sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor,” said Jim Smith, a 67-year-old retired hospital housekeeper. “This was going to be our last move.”
But now the Smiths and their neighbors are living with a guillotine blade hanging over their heads, wondering when owners of the 67-acre, 38-year-old mobile home park will uproot them all.
New Tropicana Estates persuaded Clark County commissioners last week to rezone the property for commercial use, which could pave the way for a shopping mall and other uses. The change conforms to the Spring Valley land use master plan.
The California-based company also submitted preliminary plans to Clark County commissioners for a 234-room hotel and several office and retail buildings, all part of a shopping center. In the face of harsh neighborhood opposition, the company withdrew those plans. Unsaid was how much the bad economy also played in that decision.
But the fact that the zoning change was approved opens the door for the property owners to return with a development plan. And if it is approved, residents would have to move their mobile homes to another park, if they can find one that will take them. Or, they might have to sell their units and move, but values for their dwellings have plunged in the current housing market.
To calm nerves and show residents they are serious about continuing to “operate the park for years and years to come,” New Tropicana Estates announced plans to offer two-year leases beginning Jan. 1, said Chris Kaempfer, an attorney for the company.
Still, the initial proposal and the zoning change have residents worried and uncertain.
“Why change the zoning if you don’t plan to develop?” Commissioner Tom Collins said. “It just doesn’t seem logical to me.”
After an hour of discussion, New Tropicana’s rezoning application, which received staff approval and the blessing of the Spring Valley Town Advisory Board last month, received the final go-ahead from commissioners with a 4-2 vote, with Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani absent.
“Young people have their trials and tribulations, but for seniors, we can’t bounce back,” Smith said. “A lot of money and time went into this place and it’ll be gone. That’s why people are hurt.”
There are 418 occupied mobile homes in Tropicana Village, 5900 W. Tropicana Ave. Residents own their mobile homes, but none own the property on which their dwellings sit. Homeowners pay $570 to $590 in lot rent each month, depending on whether they are seniors and whether their mobile home is a single- or double-wide.
Attorney Tony Celeste, who represents New Tropicana Estates, said his client has no immediate plans to close and develop the property, adding that even if the economy improves, it could take three or four years for construction to begin.
“I want to be real clear: This application is just for the zone change. Even if this gets zoned, we still need to come back for final approval (of the shopping center plans),” Celeste said. “Best case scenario, it’ll be 2 1/2 years for construction. And that’s being extremely optimistic.”
Even so, residents are upset at the possibility of having to uproot their lives and leave the neighborhood they have called home for years.
“Our whole lives are going to be disrupted,” said Joyce Franklin, a 69-year-old cage supervisor at Binion’s Gambling Hall. “We’ve lived here 20 years. This is home. Where are we going to go?”
State law offers some safeguards: Residents have the right for all relocation costs to be paid by the developer if they move within 100 miles of the park, or the first 100 miles paid if they move farther away.
If the mobile home can’t be moved or if the owner decides not to relocate, the developer is obligated to purchase it at fair market value.
Companies are required to give six months notice before closing a park; Celeste said New Tropicana has voluntarily promised to let residents know 18 months ahead of time.
In 1991, Franklin moved into the mobile home on Lot 27 with her husband, Philip, a retired casino worker and a Vietnam War veteran.
The couple were initially attracted to the park because they felt it was a safe neighborhood and close to amenities.
“We loved the home, we loved the neighborhood,” Joyce Franklin said. “We were very happy here. We really don’t want to move.”
Philip Franklin, who suffers from lung disease, said he likes being able to walk short distances to nearby businesses. It’s this convenience the Franklins will miss if they have to move, he said.
“We’re human, not numbers on a spreadsheet,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to make this park our home.”
Of the 418 occupied mobile homes in the park, 57 are inhabited by senior citizens who moved there because it was an affordable retirement alternative.
“This is going to be displacing senior citizens, possibly some limited-income people,” said Duane Laible, a Spring Valley Town Advisory Board member.
Mobile homes are classified as personal property, not real property, said Bob Varallo, an adviser and consultant at the Nevada Association of Manufactured Homeowners, a group that represents mobile home community residents.
“These homes don’t appreciate, they depreciate,” Varallo said, comparing mobile homes to cars and boats. “Negotiating a price for the home, that becomes a hassle between the resident and the landlord.”
Further, because of the current housing market, mobile homes have taken a hit: Some residents of Tropicana Village would be lucky to get a few thousand dollars for their homes, Varallo said.
That concerns the Franklins, who want to buy a home in Spring Valley if they have to move. They contend selling their mobile home in the depressed economy would be difficult.
In 1991, the Franklins paid $35,000 for their 1985 double-wide. They weren’t worried about depreciation because they had no plans to move. They expect their home would now fetch no more than $15,000.
The thought of having to sell and take on mortgage payments doesn’t sit well with the Franklins, who live on a limited income.
“Here, we can live within our means. It didn’t require a lot of upkeep and it basically paid for itself,” Joyce said. “I hope we can adapt. We really don’t have a choice, do we?”
Although there are enough vacancies in the valley’s dozens of mobile home parks, many communities have standards and restrictions on models and years of incoming homes.
“Many mobile homes are built and manufactured in the 1970s and early 1980s,” Varallo said. “New communities don’t look at the shape of the home or how well it’s been kept up. They’ve arbitrarily set a cutoff date.”
Steve Martinez, manager of the West Valley mobile home park, 6300 W. Tropicana Ave., just down the street from Tropicana Village, agreed with Varallo. Although West Valley has 103 vacancies and can accept about a quarter of the Tropicana Village residents, community standards would make it difficult for many of the Tropicana residents with older homes.
“We’re trying to take 1995 or newer for our community,” Martinez said. “We have made one exception in the past for an older home in good condition, but whether we’re going to waive standards is up to our corporate offices.”
Those restrictions would make it nearly impossible for Wyatt M. Earp, a 67-year-old retiree, to move his 1950s-era trailer home. The gun show enthusiast and audio book author said he plans to sell his mobile home and move into a subsidized apartment for seniors.
“This can’t be moved because it’s too old,” he said of his trailer. “I’ll probably get $1,000 for it, if I can even sell it.”
Anyone entering Tropicana Village in the weeks before the zoning meeting last week could see a large white sign announcing the zone change.
It’s a sort of writing on the wall, Earp said.
“Why should people buy homes here if they’re just going to sell it?”