KENNEWICK -- Construction on a major development project to reshape a portion of Kennewick's riverfront is on hold after developers learned eviction notices they handed out to mobile home park residents affected by the project likely wouldn't hold up in court.
The notices -- which in March gave Clover Leaf trailer park residents 30 days to leave their homes -- caused turmoil throughout the park, prompting residents to accuse BW Land of using intimidation tactics to get them out of their homes.
Residents complained the notices violated their rights as mobile home tenants and left them with little time to look for affordable housing.
BW Land -- headed by majority partner Steve West of Pasco and minority partners Jim Bullis of Kennewick and Corey Bitton of Pasco -- vehemently denies the accusations. It purchased 22 acres of land that encompasses the trailer park for $3.02 million in February. The limited liability development company plans to turn the riverfront space into a hub of condos, hotels and stores.
BW Land hired Leland Kerr of Kerr Law Group in Kennewick to look into the 36 tenants' leases to make sure the notices were legal.
Ishbel Dickens, executive director of the National Manufactured Home Owners Association, told the Herald in April that BW Land was violating the rights of tenants who own their mobile homes under multiple sections of the state Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act.
The homeowners should be given 12 months notice before any changes are made to the park, and construction should stop immediately, Dickens told the Herald.
Kerr, who spoke on behalf of BW Land, said the notices didn't comply with the act and may not hold up in court if residents were to challenge them.
"It appeared to me that they didn't comply with the case law and recent statute," he said. "There were some provisions in them that are suspect."
Residents hired attorneys after speaking with a representative of the Washington Association of Manufactured Home Owners and geared up to fight BW Land. They wanted construction to be immediately stopped and to be given more time to figure out where to live.
Shortly after the residents hired attorneys, Kerr drafted new eviction notices, which notified residents of the sale and closure of the park and gave them a year to find new places to live.
Construction inside the park has stopped as BW Land tries to come up with a plan to get the remaining residents out of the park and into different homes, Kerr said. A majority of residents moved out of the park after the first round of eviction notices were handed out.
While the residents legally have until mid-April 2014 to stay at the park, most of them say the construction for the new development has made the park unsafe and undesirable to live in. They say BW Land has continued to knock down trees and has done little maintenance to help restore the park to a place that is suitable to live.
Residents say things have gotten so bad between the remaining residents and BW Land officials that police have been called.
"There is no life left here," said Jeff Sickenberger, 53, sitting around a fire pit in front of his trailer. "I feel like a pawn in a game. I did not intend to end up living like this."
Kerr acknowledged that there have been some "flare-ups" between the company and residents. He said both sides are at a point were emotions are taking over and thinking rationally has become difficult.
"It seems like a good idea for everybody to take a couple steps back and breathe," he said.
Kerr's main goal moving forward is to try to negotiate a deal with the residents' lawyers to find them alternative housing. He said it's not in BW Land's best economical interest to keep the park open until April 2014.
Both sides are "actively negotiating," and BW Land has had conversations with the Department of Commerce about obtaining money for some residents, Kerr said. BW Land still intends to move forward with the development project and is doing smaller-scale construction outside of the park.
Residents at the park say they have not heard anything from their lawyers about negotiations.
A core group of about five residents has made it clear that they are not going to leave their homes without exercising all of their options.
"I am not going down without a fight," said Asia Gregg, 25, who grew up at the park. "I got nothing and I am willing to fight for it."
Kerr said BW Land is looking into different solutions, including providing financial assistance to get residents to move, though he admitted "money is tight all the way around."
"Everything is up for grabs," he said.
The bad taste the construction and BW Land's handling of the situation has left in residents' mouths is evident as they sat around Sickenberger's fire pit on a recent evening.
"They have really messed with the livelihood of a lot of good people," said Debra Smith, whose husband owns a trailer that their daughter lives in.
While the sense of pride they have for the park has not faded, the stress of the situation and the condition of the mobile home park has clearly taken its toll. The park residents once thought of it as their sanctuary in the middle of the city; now it is riddled with holes from ripped up trees and debris.
"(BW Land) is making it as miserable as they can to live here," Sickenberger said.
The residents insist they are not looking to hold up the future development; rather, they want some improved quality of life as they make the transition away from the place many have called home for more than 10 years.
Most of the residents left at the park said they have no idea where they will live next or how they will get the money to move there. But whatever comes next, they say the family-like bond they have forged with each other won't be easily broken.
"We will never lose touch," Sickenberger said. "I tell them every time we sit around this fire, 'You better enjoy this while it lasts.' "