There will be no evictions at Bulow RV Park at least through the end of July. The Flagler County Commission extracted that concession from Bulow park management this afternoon in exchange for a stay on enforcing county regulations against dozens of RV sites that have become unregulated, permanent home, in violation of both county code and park rules. But park management doubts six months will be sufficient for a permanent solution, and county officials are finding their powers so limited that should evictions resume, there won’t much they can do.
For years, and under the nose of management, supposedly temporary residents at the 45-acre Bulow RV Park off of Old Kings Road have been living there permanently and grafting permanent home extensions, porches, Florida rooms, stairs, garages and sheds onto their RVs, without building permits, park permits or inspections. The park is home to 320 such sites. For years, management has not been vigilant about policing the illegal homes, and has implicitly–if not explicitly, in some cases–signed off on the construction, while methodically not only allowing but requiring year-long leases.
The county, for its part, has not been vigilant about enforcing its code, letting the park grow into a subdivision in all but name: the park has its own school bus stop. If residents’ homes and status have been out of compliance, both have taken on a form of entitled residency by dint of longevity and regulatory indifference, grafting residency rights onto their properties the way even squatters, with time, legally earn rights of their own.
More recently, management for the RV park’s company, Equity Lifestyle Properties–which booked $222 million in profits in the nine months ending last Sept. 30, according to its SEC filings–had sought to evict renters who are out of compliance. Many have left. Many fear being evicted, with no place to go.
If Flagler County were to enforce its code, as it is considering doing, it would be forced to do so against management, levying fines that could add up rapidly. Management would then be forced to evict out-of-compliance tenants just to stop the bleeding.
Neither park residents nor the County Commission look kindly on the company, blaming it for turning a blind eye for years on residents who built non-complying structures, happy to cash in on their rent payments. The company turned an equally blind eye on year-round residents, happy as it’s been to cash in on the stability of year-round leases, even though by law, and by park regulations, the residents are not supposed to be there a day longer than six months. Now that the company has decided to enforce its non-compliance rules, long-time residents say they’re being made to face choices they shouldn’t have to face, given the years of regulatory neglect by everyone else.
The county doesn’t want to see evictions, and to some extent, neither does the company, whose representatives say that an empty site generates zero dollars. Neither have a clean-cut solution, because an actual solution would be expensive and agonizing. As Adam Mengel, the county’s planning director, and Bo Snowden, the county’s building official, told the commission today, most of the construction that’s not permitted, most of the time, is not going to be up to code. It would be a huge expense for the county to inspect the properties after the fact–a prospect the commission is uninterested in–and a third party inspector would mean somebody would have to pay the bill.
Then, “even the fix on this thing would be cutting the house in half,” Snowden said. In other words, problematic park residences would have to be cut up and made unlivable. So even after the six-month stay, it’s not clear how either Flagler County or Equity Lifestyle Properties will extricate themselves from a mess they both share in creating, as of course do the residents. As County Commissioner Donald O’Brien put it, “it’s kicking the can down the road no matter how you slice it, but maybe that gives a little bit more time.”
Even the park’s Stan Martin, a senior vice president in the company’s legal department, had little hope for the six-month stay. “Six months would be great, but in all candor, having done this type of work for 24 years, not sure a lot is going to happen within six months, such that the commission is going to be happy and that the county is going to be happy,” Martin said. “A year and a half is much more realistic.” Commissioners were not interested in a year and a half.
But today’s two-hour workshop at least laid out the issues more sharply than before, illustrating the difficulties ahead while giving each side a chance to speak its mind. The workshop was at times tense, and Glenn Gainsborough, a resident at the park and the only one to address the commission, reflected the prevailing frustrations after hearing exchanges between management’s Stan Martin and commissioners.
Gainsborough blamed the park for “gross negligence in responsibility for this situation,” tracing back the issue to 2007. In a wry rejoinder to Martin, who on a few occasions appeared to shed responsibility for what happened before his arrival, and who said he was in Iraq in 2007 (the kind of valor-dropping that can misfire as its opposite, when it is clearly intended as a shield), Gainsborough reminded him that many residents at the park are veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. “This is such a blatant case of injustice I cannot hardly believe what I am hearing,” Gainseborough said, threatening litigation. He said at least 30 sites have people living year-round. “Nobody checks on how long you’re staying there. Nobody. They drive around every day,” he said.
There are structures that should be torn down. There are structures that are in excellent shape, he said. He invited case by case inspections–but not at residents’ expense. “Any fair minded mediator looking at the situation is going to say this is not apples to apples,” he said. If the county bears some responsibility, he said, “the ultimate party responsible is the owner of the property who has allowed these things to go on and allowed, I would have to say, millions of dollars of transactions to take place, when you look at the cumulative amount of real estate that has been bought and sold, knowing that there was an active violation that was never remedied and never disclosed to the owners.”
Mengel said that in November 2022 there were 63 sites in violation. As of now, roughly 50 are not in compliance. Martin, speaking for management, said more than two dozen have come into compliance. But Gainsborough ridiculed that figure. Those who supposedly came into compliance, he said, didn’t actually do so: “They abandoned their houses, abandoned their homes that they bought, turned the titles back into Equity Lifestyle Property, said here, you can have it because they couldn’t stand the stress of what was going on,” he said.
Commission Chairman Andy Dance put most of the blame on park management during an exchange with Martin that distilled the issue to its essentials. “This really is a property management issue, a failure of property management,” he said. “The management knows when structures are going up.” If management was driving the site continuously, it would inevitably be noticing any construction that was against code. “So I have trouble with turning a blind eye and then claiming that past management and–it’s not passing the smell test so far.”
Martin said he wasn’t defending past practices, but also begged off blame for himself, “just like you’re not responsible for something that happened in the county,” he said. “I guess you could say the same thing about the county not coming in and actively taking a more active hand in code enforcement that it’s the county’s fault because they should have seen you know, the structure is going up.”
“Well, that’s where we’re at because you’re trying to place blame on the county. That’s completely wrong,” Dance said. He was not pleased, and it showed.
“We’re not trying to lay the blame on anybody’s feet. We’re looking at how we go forward here,” Martin said.
“No, but you’re passing the buck to the residents, is what’s happening,” Dance said. “It’s now falling on their shoulders to make changes to things that have been allowed. It’s not right, it’s not fair. And this has been persisting.”
Commissioner Leann Pennington explored options toward a resolution, such as putting a temporary halt to park operations until it came into compliance. She was not opposed to a stay on county fines, but doubted that the company would promise not to evict anyone through that stay until Martin made the pledge explicit.
“We have no ability to stop the eviction which is the most concerning piece to this for me,” Pennington said. “This is gross and disgusting. If I had the power and ability to stop you from operating as a mobile home park, because you turned a blind eye to it also, I would. But I don’t seem to have that ability either. So if we’re here to make a decision on the enforcement, because we can’t make a decision on anything else,” she continued, “then I think we go through with the enforcement, and if it’s not cleaned up, we go through with a special magistrate on the owner of that property. That’s really hard, but I’m hearing that we cannot make decisions on anything that bothers us the most about this. We can’t stop the evictions. We can’t grandfather the properties and we can’t protect these people. We can’t. Our hands are tied now on this one.”