Resort park's 'permanent' residents could get evicted

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, July 31, 2013

TOWN OF FULTON--Residents of a private resort park who face eviction for living there year-round could have to continue a legal fight for the right to access their properties whenever they want.

Rock River Leisure Estates continues to roll forward in a legal quest to force residents  to stop living in their park model trailers, many of which are decked out similar to small homes.

The park's homeowners association board argues that its covenants don't allow permanent residency on most park lots—an assertion that's been at the center of several lawsuits between the park and property owners since 2010.

The resort park, located on Ellendale Road, is a private, gated community with a demographic that tilts heavily toward older residents. Some say their only residences are their properties in the park.  

Now, some of those residents face eviction or legal action aimed at determining their residency status in the park if they don't stop living there year-round—that is, longer than nine months a year, which is part of a loose set of criteria defined by the park's board and management.

Park resident Mary Sherman, who has owned a park model trailer at Leisure Estates for nine years, showed The Gazette a legal notice sent to her in July by Janesville law firm Nowlan & Mouat, the park board's attorney.

The notice states that she faces potential eviction by Oct. 31 for living in the park permanently. The letter also suggests potential contempt of court citations for not complying with the notice, which the park board's attorney rests on an earlier ruling by a Rock County judge that "permanent residence" at the park may be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on residents' own circumstances and living arrangements.

Sherman, for instance, lives at the park permanently and does not have another residence, she said.

“I'll eventually have to sell. I can't afford two places,” Sherman said. “Or if I don't, I could go to jail, I guess. Or I could be in contempt of court.”

Barb Schade is another resident who says her park model trailer as her only residence. She also has a legal ultimatum by the park to stop living there permanently or she faces eviction or other legal sanctions in October.

Her place, which she's owned for 11 years, is an 800-square-foot park model with a room addition. It has two bedrooms, two baths and hardwood floors. She's put it up for sale because of the lawsuits.

Schade finds it odd that people for years were allowed by the park and the town to do extravagant buildouts on park model properties such as hers and now the town levies property taxes on them similar to permanent residential homes in the Edgerton area.

Yet the park expects people not to live in those residences as though they are permanent homes.

“I didn't do my addition. Somebody else built it earlier. They were on the park board. The town (of Fulton) let them do it,” she said.

Madison attorney Buck Sweeney, who represents one of the residents who faces eviction in October, said he's still reviewing case facts to determine whether his client could try mediation or instead file a countersuit to fight the park's attempt at eviction.

Eleven other residents haven't yet been served eviction threats, but they're being ordered to prove their residency status in court next spring, according to court papers.

The park board is putting those residents' living status under a microscope. The park's attorney has sent them mailers that are essentially legal requests to supply their permanent mailing addresses, voter registry and other proof of residency.

Those residents face individual hearings in Rock County Court next spring.

The catalyst for the issue and the original lawsuit by residents was a 2010 court filing by Leisure Estates that sought to prevent two residents from living year-round in their modified park model trailer.

That sparked a 2011 lawsuit in Rock County Circuit Court by about 40 residents who argued the park didn't have the rules in place to determine permanent residency or enforce it.

In an October 2012 ruling on the suit, Judge Daniel T. Dillon decided in a summary judgment that Leisure Estates homeowners association board could not establish a blanket threshold for permanent residency without a two-thirds vote by park residents.

But Dillon's ruling did not prevent the park board from suing its residents individually for living in the park on a permanent basis.

That's allowed the park board's attorney in the months since Dillon's decision to move ahead with a series of individual lawsuits against some of the residents who filed the 2011 lawsuit seeking the court to overrule the parks authority in enforcing or enacting permanent residence regulations.

Some residents in the original suit have stopped fighting the park over the residency issue and instead are selling their properties and leaving.

They've since been dropped from the list of residents the park is suing, according to a June 12 court hearing in Rock County Court.

Residents in the park suggest they're being targeted with a legal divide-and-conquer strategy they say is aimed at getting them to sell their properties and move out.

“They're picking on us because we got an injunction (the original 2011 lawsuit), to stop this,” Kathy Strang said.

Strang, who was a party to the 2011 suit, said she and her husband Jon returned to  the park in May after spending five months at their other residence in Texas to learn they face legal action for living in the park “permanently.”

Nowlan and Mouat attorney Tim Lindau, who is handling the suits for the park board, could not be reached for comment.

In 2011, Les Prisk, a park board member at the time, told The Gazette the park forces residents to sign an agreement prohibiting permanent residency. Prisk said the rule is to keep the park safe in the winter and to avoid attracting residents seeking low-income housing.

Park officials in the past have offered some residents a temporary settlement—an option to pay a special fee to the park of up to $1,500 for the privilege of living in the park year-round for a set amount of time, residents told the Gazette.

Yet not all residents have been extended that offer, and at the same time, the park board plans to sue or evict about 20 other park residents who it says it considers to be living in the park permanently, Lindau said in a June hearing in Rock County Court.

Park resident Jerry Gaffey has lived in the park parts of the year for over two decades, he says, but never permanently. He says he has another residence in the Kenosha area.

Gaffey, who is retired and has health problems, said the prospect of selling his park property is attractive. Yet he said it would be a poor time to sell because the housing market is still shaky.

Many of the properties now being sold in the park are being listing in the mid-$20,000 range, far lower than what Gaffey said he believes could be their true market value.

Last updated: 2:03 pm Wednesday, July 31, 2013

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