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Tenants from the Sunset Farm Mobile Home Park meet with housing advocates Wednesday in Bennington. The park is facing foreclosure. (Peter Crabtree)
Friday July 19, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Senior Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- With their landlord in foreclosure proceedings and the infrastructure they rely on failing them, residents of the Sunset Farm Mobile Home Park eagerly sought answers Thursday from a host of town and state officials.

Park owner John M. Bushee Jr. is not fighting foreclosure proceedings brought forth by Chittenden Trust Co. Bushee will eventually lose the land, leaving tenants unsure of their long-term living situation. They are facing the very real possibility the park will close, forcing them to find a way to relocate.

The short-term situation is also dim. Residents described month after month of a failed water system, forcing those residing in the park's 13 housing units to purchase bottled water. Most residents are now subtracting the cost of bottled water from the rent they pay to lease the lots their homes sit on. Others, on the advice of Vermont Legal Aid, have begun placing their rent in escrow.

Walking away

Bushee has had problems supplying the park with a clean water supply since April 2012. The town of Bennington reached an agreement with Bushee to upgrade the system. The state has issued the requisite permits, but both tenants and state officials said Thursday it's clear Bushee is walking away from the property and has no intention of fixing it.

"There is a permit out there that's approved but I don't believe the owner has any intention of putting in that new system," said Gary Kessler with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

In the meantime, residents said they want to stop paying a monthly surcharge to Bushee for upgrades he claimed to make to the water system. Bushee signed an affidavit stating he has so far paid $4,900 to improve the water system. The $35 monthly surcharge cannot be assessed on each unit until that is paid off, according to Dale Azaria, general counsel for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The sewer system has also fared poorly. One woman, visibly upset, said contents of a septic tank "bubbled up" near her home leaving behind a bad odor.

"My desire is to get out of the park," she said. "I can't afford to go anywhere else. I'm stuck here."

Arthur Hamlin, housing program coordinator with the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, told residents Thursday that the bank has no interest in taking ownership of the park. The property will likely go to auction in the next several months, he said.

A private buyer is unlikely to invest the necessary funds to make the park habitable for the long-term, however, according to John Broderick, executive director of Shires Housing, the Regional Affordable Housing Corp. for Bennington County.

"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news here, but this is going to be a heavy bill," he said. "It's a pretty big bill, folks, and for 13 units it's going to be a tough sell."

Broderick said his nonprofit organization was asked by the state to look into the issues surrounding the park and assess if it could take over the park. Broderick said he hired a civil engineer to investigate the water and sewer infrastructure. The findings are likely cost-prohibitive, he said.

Anyone looking to acquire the property must pay down more than $30,000 in back taxes owed to the town. The bank is owed about $100,000. Additionally, it will cost about $150,000 to bring the water system up to current codes, and another $600,000 to connect the park to the town's sewer system, which appears to be the best solution, Broderick said.

"Any new owner coming is going to be faced with a really, really large bill to get the water system to where it needs to be and to get either connected to the town system or get a workable septic system. It really might not even be possible," he said. "Would be willing to do it? Not under those circumstances. Not from what we've seen from this report. This would be very difficult. I have a board of directors I work for and I would have to convince them to take this on."

If a new owner is not found the state is likely to step in and close the park down. Kessler said there is time frame for that yet.

"From my agency's point of view, we can't just have this go on indefinitely," he said. "That may be one of the things that forces the closure of the park."

Thursday's meeting with local and state officials was facilitated by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity's Mobile Home Project. Resident counselors with the program said they will continue to assist residents find solutions to the issues plaguing the park.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami