Zoning, hot land prices reduce Md. trailer parks

Leaving: Mobile-home parks are declining, the victims of rising land values and restrictive zoning laws.

April 08, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Rose Madison, who has lived in the same place for 41 years, must start over soon at age 64.

The land is being pulled from underneath her house.

It is an increasingly common story in Maryland, where mobile-home parks are being converted to more immediately profitable developments, from stores to upscale subdivisions. Manufactured housing is very often the most affordable way to live in this expensive state, but there are fewer and fewer places to put it.

Rising land values encourage different uses. Restrictive zoning laws in some counties discourage new parks and even prohibit people from placing a single manufactured house on a residential lot. And one park owner in Washington County said he has halted plans to expand because new local building and impact fees came to nearly $13,000 for a $28,000 manufactured home.

Builders added more than a quarter-million homes of all types to the Maryland landscape in the 1990s, but the U.S. Census Bureau counted 460 fewer mobile homes - even as such factory-built housing grew by 20 percent nationwide.

"There's something wrong," said William E. Pennington Jr., a manufactured home retailer and co-owner of Fortney Estates mobile-home park in Washington County. "Maryland is just a very difficult state to deal in. ... I end up having to move people to West Virginia and Pennsylvania."

Mobile-home park closures threaten the well-being of people on the edge - blue-collar workers, retirees living on small pensions and Social Security, and professionals who are finding it hard to get by in a state where the average house sells for more than $225,000.

Local zoning officials blame disappearing parks on ever-rising land values. That's clearly part of the story.

In Howard County, the Pfister's Mobile Home Park in North Laurel will shut down next year because the elderly owners are negotiating to sell the property. A California company in charge of Aladdin Village up the road is trying for new zoning to allow a mix of uses, none of which would involve manufactured housing.

But two other parks were rezoned by the County Council in February as part of an effort to encourage revitalization around U.S. 1. While it won't force those operations to change, the rezoning seems like a bad sign to mobile-home residents, who believe old stereotypes of "trailer trash" are dooming their affordable living.

"Howard is definitely trying to close them," said Lee Brangan, 65, a financial planner who put off semiretirement when he learned the Ev-Mar mobile home park in North Laurel might be sold to developers.

Elsewhere in recent years, a park in Baltimore County was redeveloped into a BJ's Wholesale Club. A Harford County park was converted to townhouses.

In St. Mary's County a park became a Wal-Mart - the vestiges are being cleared away as the store prepares to supersize - while another park in the county turned into a community pool; a third is being eyed by developers.

Developers are trying to put together a project on the U.S. 1 median where three small trailer parks in Howard County closed in 2001.

A hotel is rising where a park once stood in West Ocean City. Mobile homes at a park near Annapolis will give way to 26 single-family houses next year.

Montgomery County may soon have only two left: Earth-movers are preparing the former Cider Barrel Mobile Home Court in Germantown for 316 apartments with market rents starting at $1,100, and a builder is planning to erect townhouses on the park next door.

"I don't know the solution," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., planning director for Anne Arundel County, who said the value for townhouse lots in his area is about $100,000 each. That's a quick gain compared with the long-term investment of a mobile-home lot renting for $300 or $400 a month.

"The economics are driving it," Rutter said. "It's like any other business."

Tom Marshall, vice president of Elm Street Development, which is redeveloping the former Cider Barrel park in Germantown, knows the 316 apartments aren't nearly as cheap as the 62 mobile homes they're replacing. But they will be a comparatively affordable housing option in the Washington suburbs, he said, and a five-fold increase in units to boot.

"It's understandable," he added, "why an owner of a trailer park that is getting relatively little in the way of rent from his relatively few trailers would sell to a developer that could build more units."

Maryland has about 385 mobile-home parks at the moment, a third of which are in the Baltimore suburbs. No one knows how much that's changed in recent years, but county and industry officials agree the trend is downward.

They can think of only a handful in recent memory that have opened and a few more that have expanded. Some parks, updating to accommodate larger manufactured homes, actually have fewer lots.

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