Trailer park unites over water woes: Residents see ownership as way to solve troubles

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Great Falls Tribune (Montana)
By:  Karl Puckett
March 3, 2013

In the fall of 2009, residents, who make an average of less than $20,000 a year, formed a not-for-profit cooperative in order to buy the park. A purchase is now pending. And in 2012, they formed a water and sewer district in order to replace the park's outdated water and sewer infrastructure.

Both moves, Feist says, were attempts by residents to take control of their living conditions and resolve the problems that plague the park today and avoid them in the future.

"It affects our lives daily," he says.

Montana has 1,000 licensed mobile home parks.

Trailer Terrace, one of 34 parks in Cascade County, has the worst water and sewer system that Pam Smith has ever seen.

Smith is the program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation's renewable resource grant and loan program, which funds water and sewer system improvements in Montana.

"We live in a headwaters state, and no little kid should have to drink bad water," Smith said. "That's what drives me with my job anyway. I really feel that."

In 2012, tests at Trailer Terrace showed arsenic in the water at four times the EPA health standard.

Since then, arsenic levels have returned to safe levels, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

But residents are pressing forward. They've applied for $1.9 million in loans and grants from state and federal agencies to get water and sewer work improvements started.

And in their most recent move, they've asked the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology to conduct a study to find out where the arsenic is coming from. Funding for that work would have to come from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Smith said no money for that work, if approved, will be available until July 1, but she thinks a study is a good idea to find the source of the arsenic before new water wells are drilled.

The property currently is tied up in foreclosure proceedings in Cascade County District Court.

The owner is Dennis Deschamps of Lolo, but the park is in receivership and Deschamps is no longer involved with its operation. He purchased the property in 2003 from Larry Rasmussen, who later died.

As part of the foreclosure proceedings, the court appointed Dennis Rasmussen, Larry's brother and estate representative, as the receiver, and he's now in charge of maintaining the property until the property is sold. The resident cooperative has submitted a purchase offer.

Since the court named him receiver last spring, Rasmussen, of Kalispell, says he's completed a number of improvements to the water system that solved the water quality issues, including the high level of arsenic.

"The water system is now working very well," Rasmussen said.

And he's also implemented new rules that he says cleaned up the community, such as allowing only one dog per trailer and setting aside a place for old cars that don't run.

"I'm just trying to get it back on its feet again and make it a good cash-flow operation," 
Rasmussen said. "You can't sell an old junky car."

Residents are making a move to buy the park with the help of NeighborWorks Montana, a not-for-profit with a mission of creating affordable housing.

"I think it's a great idea," said Melissa Tuemmler, supervisor of Food and Consumer Safety Section of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which licenses mobile home parks based on inspections completed by counties. "I'm hoping we see a trend."

Tuemmler said ownership gives control and impetus to solve problems that arise.

In 2012, the state refused to validate Trailer Terrace's mobile home park license because it didn't have an approved water and sewer system.

Problems with water and sewer systems are the most common reason mobile home parks have licensing issues, she says.

"Traditionally, mobile home parks have kind of been a problem area because they are privately held by a for-profit owner," says Lyle Meeks, an engineer with NCI Engineering in Great Falls, whom residents have hired to design new water and sewer systems. "It's not like it's a municipal utility, where the goal is to have a capital improvement program and capital replacement program.

"There's just a tendency for lower capital input into these things to keep them up," Meeks added.

NeighborWorks is affiliated with a national organization called ROC USA, which stands for "resident owned communities," said Sheila Rice of NeighborWorks. The organization offers financing for cooperatives that form in mobile or manufactured home communities. The Trailer Terrace co-op has received preliminary approval for a loan but the sale depends on resolving the water-sewer issues, she said.

"These are all hard-working people who have regular full-time jobs and they've done a lot of work to try to get this sale completed," Rice said. "Some of them have lived there 20 and 30 years and they remember the old days when Trailer Terrace was very nicely kept up and that's what they want to restore the park to."

Since 2008, mobile home cooperatives have been formed in Red Lodge, Kalispell and at Missouri Meadows, another mobile home park in Great Falls, Rice said.

Trailer Terrace would be the fourth.

NeighborWorks Montana became interested in assisting mobile home court residents in forming cooperatives after a park closed near Whitefish and displaced 132 families, Rice said.

Tuemmler predicts that even more residents elsewhere in Montana will follow the example of Trailer Terrace if its residents succeed in purchasing the park in Great Falls.

Mobile home park residents own their homes but not the ground underneath them, making them vulnerable to rent increases, deferred maintenance and park closures if land is sold for redevelopment, Rice said.

Ownership via a cooperative, she says, offers security with residents controlling rents, amenities and water and sewer updates. Members receive long-term transferrable leases of up to 75 years, which makes the home more valuable when homes are sold, and a board runs the cooperative, Rice said. Money that typically would go to the owner can be invested in park improvements, she said.

"The people who live in that community, they want to keep it up to date," Rice said.

In April of 2012, Trailer Terrace residents also voted to form the South Wind Water and Sewer District, which was necessary to apply for loans and grants to fix the problems.

The first phase of the plan by the residents to upgrade the system would cost $1.9 million.

The district is applying for $1.6 million in grants from the Montana Department of Commerce and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development.

It's also seeking a $330,000 loan from Rural Development.

"The linchpin of the deal," NeighborWorks' Rice says of purchasing the park, "is having approval of those grants."

Much of the funding is contained in bills now being considered at the Legislature.

The 22-acre Trailer Terrace is located 1.7 miles south of town, on scenic Lower River Road, which parallels the Missouri River. It has mature landscaping and trees, it's in a rural setting and it has easy access, making it attractive.

Except for the water.

"My problem is, if I can smell the water, I'm not going to drink it," says Feist, who adds the water sometimes smells like rotten eggs because it contains high levels of sulfates.

High iron content also clogs up coffee makers in four to six months. Hardness of the water is 38 grains per gallon, which is considered very hard.

The park was constructed 51 years ago, in 1962, to house Boeing employees installing Minuteman missile systems for the U.S. Air Force in northcentral Montana. The company built, installed and maintained the missiles in their silos and trained Air Force personnel involved in the program.

"This place has deteriorated," says Feist, a 52-year-old home health care worker who shares a mobile home with his wife, Heidi, and 6-year-old-son Joseph.

A drinking water dispenser sits in the kitchen and the family buys bottled water for cooking.

The park has history of environmental issues related to its aging water and sewer systems, but they've never been permanently resolved, Meeks said.

But the arsenic was new. Meeks says arsenic occurs naturally in groundwater in some locations in Montana.

"But not these concentrations and certainly not in the public water supply systems ¿ this being different because it's a public water supply system. If you're a private system, you're not regulated."

EPA sets the safe drinking water standard, said Rich Jost, acting case management chief for the state Department of Environmental Quality's Enforcement Division.

The running annual average of arsenic can't exceed 0.01 milligrams per liter of water.

On May 18, 2011, a test required at the park every three years showed an elevated level of .022, exceeding the maximum allowable level of arsenic. That prompted quarterly sampling. Over the next year, the average level of arsenic was .42, or four times the maximum allowable level, Jost said.

In September 2012, the DEQ issued an administrative order to the trailer park for exceeding the safe drinking water standard for arsenic, which is one step short of judicial action.

"We're hopeful that this new group of individuals will buy this system and bring it back into compliance," Jost said. "And we also feel that's their goal as well."

In the three most recent arsenic samples that Rasmussen submitted to the DEQ, arsenic levels dropped well below the maximum contaminant levels, and the park no longer is in violation, Jost says. Jost says it is not uncommon for levels of arsenic to fluctuate. Rasmussen is appealing the order.

No reports of residents getting sick have been reported to the DEQ, Jost said.

Bill Bronson, a Great Falls city commissioner and an attorney, said he has a client who lives at Trailer Terrace. He is representing the client in a disability claim unrelated to the trailer park's water system. As part of that claim, the client's child needed to be seen by a physician, Bronson said. The child had elevated levels of arsenic, he said.

"It kind of illustrates the point there is that concern out there," Bronson said. "Fortunately, it hasn't resulted in any long-term problems (for the child). But it is an issue out there. That kind of brings it closer to home."

Trailer Terrace is a public water system, which is a system that serves more than 25 people daily for more than 60 days of the year.

The DEQ has 100 active cases involving public water supply systems that have allegedly violated public water supply laws, with Trailer Terrace one of them.

If the project proceeds as planned, residents would pay $59 a month to repay the loans involved. Currently, water and sewer fees are part of the lot rent.

Today, the park is licensed for 92 mobile home pads, but the infrastructure was built for a temporary housing situation and hasn't kept up, Meeks says.

Meeks says he's never been associated with a group of residents so committed to fixing the problem. The median household income is $19,800. That's 58 percent of the average in the county.

He says he's only seen one other environmental and public health situation that was more severe in a 35-year career, and that was a case in which raw sewage was coming out of the hillside near Stockett.

Meeks blames repeated ownership changes over the years and the potential loss of housing as factors in why the problems were not fixed sooner.

"The owners of the court used that in the regulatory environment and said, 'If you put the hammer on me, I'm going to close,' and the agencies didn't want to be responsible, politically, putting 92 families without a place to live," he said.

In his research, he says he found 23 different water violation letters from the DEQ over the past 10 years.

One day last month, Meeks drove past the modest mobile homes and came to a stop.

"This is their lovely water tanks," he says, pointing at two corroded steel tanks.

They were moved to the park from the oil refinery in Great Falls, Meeks said. "They look as bad on the inside as they do on the outside," he says.

Water in the tanks freeze up and are too low in elevation to adequately pressurize the system, Meeks said. Water pressure in the upper parts of the park are 10 pounds per square inch. It should be 40.

The proposed solution to the poor water quality is drilling deeper wells to tap a new water supply deep in the Madison aquifer. Currently, the park is served by two shallow wells.

Meeks drives to the other end of the park.

A sewage lagoon sits behind a fence. Residents say it stinks and leaks into the groundwater, which finds its way to the Missouri River nearby.

"It was most interestingly designed to leak," Meeks said.

It has no formal outlet and is designed to disperse raw sewage via a drain-field in the ground. But as lagoons age, sludge seals off the bottom and the lagoon almost overran its sides a few years ago, Meeks said.

The lagoon is 45 percent of the size that it would be required by today's standards, Meeks says.

The sewer lines were installed to house temporary construction employees without long-range implications in mind, Meeks says. Some of the service laterals are Orangeburg service pipe, which is paper product used in World War II and shortly thereafter.

"Think of a roll of toilet paper, the cardboard roll, the hollow roll," Meeks says. "It's basically like that, except it's been treated."

The solution to the sewer problems involves building new lagoons above the mobile home park and using the stored and treated effluent for irrigating agricultural fields, Meeks said.

When Boeing left, the mobile home park was sold at a sheriff's auction, Feist said. It's been sold in a sheriff's auction four times in total, says Feist, who conducted a title search when he was researching water rights.

One Christmas, Feist says, residents had no water.

"So we formed everything to try to make it to where we were in control of our own destinies we were in control of what was going to happen at this place instead of somebody else," Feist said.

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