Battle over affordable housing

TUMWATER - Two ordinances aimed at preserving affordable housing for mobile home park residents in Tumwater are headed for an extensive legal fight, with park owners claiming they're unfairly burdened and residents saying they need protection.

Owners of two of the parks and the Manufactured Housing Communities of Washington, a nonprofit association representing park owners statewide, have appealed to Thurston County Superior Court a state board’s ruling that the ordinance complied with the Growth Management Act, except on one issue.

Separately, the petitioners, joined by a third park owner, have sued in federal court in Tacoma, alleging that the ordinances violate their constitutional rights.

The Tumwater City Council approved the ordinances earlier this year, and they’re thought to be the first of their kind in the state. Their fate is being watched elsewhere as communities grapple with how to provide affordable housing for residents as land values rise.

The city took the step after hearing from residents of mobile home parks who were concerned that redevelopment on mobile home park land could pull their rental properties out from under them. Residents in parks near Lacey and Olympia face similar issues.

The park owners say the exclusive zoning under the ordinances disproportionately burdens them with what should be a shared community responsibility to provide affordable housing.

“You can’t lay the responsibility of that on one group of property owners,” said Ken Spencer, the manufactured housing association’s executive director. “We think it’s unfair and illegal.”

They say the ordinances are an illegal “taking” in violation of the Growth Management Act, statewide policies aimed at reducing urban sprawl, and the U.S. Constitution, which is the reason for the separate appeal and lawsuit.

Spencer said it’s odd that after providing affordable housing for decades, park owners are “suddenly the villains.” He noted that with the ordinance, the city is preventing redevelopment opportunities that could bring more affordable housing, because the same properties could sustain double or even triple the number of dwellings.

Mobile home park residents approached other Tumwater residents at the end of the housing and development boom. The City Council referred the issue to its planning commission in February 2008.

“We were seeing a lot of residential development at the time,” said Mike Matlock, the city’s planning and facilities director.

No proposal to redevelop a manufactured home park was pending at the time, he said.

Dan Beedle, 75, a resident of Laurel Park Estates, said he sought assistance from the city after growing concern that the area was a “hot spot” for development. Laurel Park is one of six parks affected by the ordinance.

Beedle said that if the property were sold out from under him, none of the area parks would take them because they have older manufactured homes. He said he has savings to allow him to land softly elsewhere, but other residents, some of whom live on $700 a month in Social Security checks, “would be out in the cold.”

“It (the ordinance) gives us the coverage we need, but it still gives the property owner the opportunity to get it rezoned,” he said. Under the ordinance, there’s sufficient time for park residents to organize to try to buy the property or move elsewhere if the property owner pursues rezoning, Beedle said.

The City Council unanimously passed the ordinances Feb. 17. In justifying the decision, council members cited state Commerce Department figures that found the average number of park closures in the state has increased to 14 per year between 2003 and 2008 from about six annually from 1989 to 2002. The Growth Management Act requires cities to adopt plans that identify land for housing for low-income families.

Before the ordinances passed, affected parks in Tumwater were zoned for residential use and could have been used to house single-family homes or apartments and town houses, depending on the required density.

Ordinance No. O2008-009 created the new zoning. Uses for properties under the new zoning were restricted to housing manufactured homes, trails and open space – and, with the approval of city officials, day-care centers. The zoning allows accessory dwellings, such as storage sheds and parking garages.

It also allows a property owner to secure a conditional-use permit for other uses, such as a church, cell tower, convenience store or bed-and-breakfast. In their challenge, the park owners have characterized the conditional uses as “window dressing” allowing the council to protect itself against claims that the ordinance is an illegal taking.

The ordinances apply to six manufactured home parks. Three others were exempted because they were too small. A fourth exempted park is the only one on commercial land and is expected to be redeveloped for retail use.

Park owners took their case to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, which presides over challenges to growth-related decisions, after the city appeals process upheld the City Council’s decision.

In an Oct. 13 decision, the board rejected all but one of the claims challenging that the ordinances violated the Growth Management Act.

The board ruled that the city did not follow the process outlined by the state attorney general to give due consideration to ensure the ordinances do not result in an unconstitutional taking of private property. The board does not have the authority to determine whether a taking of private property has occurred; only courts have that authority.

Both sides asked the board to reconsider various issues, but its Nov. 13 order brought no substantial changes.

City Attorney Karen Kirkpatrick is scheduled to present information to the Tumwater Planning Commission on Tuesday and the City Council early next month to comply with the board’s order. A hearing before the state growth board on whether the city complied with its order is set for Feb. 23.

The park owners seek an order from Thurston County Superior Court overturning the ordinance on the basis that the ordinances violate their rights under the state and federal constitution and therefore do not comply with the Growth Management Act. The case is assigned to Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee. A court date is set for February.

They ask the federal court to invalidate the ordinances. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle has set a trial date of June 15.

The city denies the allegations that the ordinances violate the park owners’ rights.

Christian Hill: 360-754-5427