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Tenants raise alarm about Ilwaco RV park

Susan Gill rests in her trailer at Beacon RV Park in Ilwaco, Wash. She has a place to go as the parks new owners pressure tenants to leave, but some of her neighbors aren’t as fortunate. Photo by Katie Frankowicz/KMUN

ILWACO — On Monday, the Ilwaco City Council met to discuss a proclamation to declare a housing emergency in the city.

But residents say a very specific type of housing emergency has been unfolding for months only a few blocks away.

Tenants of the Beacon Charters and RV Park on Elizabeth Avenue say new owners have threatened them with evictions and tried to intimidate them into leaving, a possible displacement that one business owner has called “homelessness in the making.”

The state and Pacific County have intervened over issues at the park, but tenants and others concerned about the situation are urging city leaders and port commissioners to take action as well. The port owns the land and leases it to the RV park owners while the park itself, until recently, was owned and operated by the mayor.

Beacon is home to some of Ilwaco’s most vulnerable residents, Pacific County Health and Human Services noted in a letter to city leaders. Many of the tenants live on fixed or very low incomes. Many are elderly and dealing with disabilities. Many have lived at the park for years.

Displacing these people, the county wrote, would “further the housing crises we are currently experiencing within Pacific County.”

The county was more specific in a letter to the Washington Attorney General’s Manufactured Housing Dispute Resolution Program in March: “Due to our lack of affordable housing within Pacific County and the sheer number of low-income individuals being evicted, this eviction would devastate our community and these families.”

Beacon RV Park includes 60 sites for RVs and, according to various estimates, has been home to anywhere from 45 to 100 people — a significant portion of the city’s population which hovers at just over 1,000.

Up until April, Beacon belonged to Mike Cassinelli, who has served two terms as mayor of Ilwaco since 2009. He was elected to the post for a third time in November.

Cassinelli told port commissioners last year he was looking to sell the park. On April 6, he finalized the sale of the business and his interest in the lease to Michael and Denise Werner of Deer Point Meadows Investments LLC for $1.5 million.

But issues with the park were already in motion.

In February, before they had ownership of Beacon, the Werners began issuing 30-day notices to vacate the property. Bruce Conklin, an Olympia-based attorney who represents around 10 of the Beacon RV Park tenants, says the notices were illegal. They had not gone through the proper court process and gave tenants less time to move than is allowed under state law.

The letter, signed “management,” stated that the new owners wanted to make improvements to the park and that some tenants might be able to return in September. In the meantime, tenants were invited to move to properties operated by RV Inn Style Resorts, another company owned by the Werners, with the caveat that space was limited.

Pacific County health workers forwarded the vacate notice to the Northwest Justice Project, which brought in Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services. The state attorney general’s office then met with Cassinelli, who said the notice to tenants had come from the Werners. He was told to rescind the notice.

But signs went up around the park later claiming that, due to unsafe conditions, the park would close for business in mid-April. Utilities would be turned off and people needed to leave. Again, the attorney general’s office intervened.

Just after the sale was finalized, Long Beach police were called to the park. Representatives of the Werners had shown up to begin removing trailers. One of the men carried a gun. Long Beach Police Chief Flint Wright said the man didn’t threaten anyone and was carrying the gun legally, but to tenants, it felt like another intimidation tactic.

Police told the men they could not remove anyone’s property without a court order.

The Werners appear to have backed away from efforts to forcibly remove people and have instead begun offering to buy people out. Some tenants have taken the $2,000 offered, but others say it’s not enough money for them to start over somewhere else, especially on a tight timeline.

Consumer complaints and accusations of wrongful eviction proceedings, steep rent increases and harassment of tenants have followed the Werners at multiple properties they operate throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Chinook Observer reported that 10 complaints have been filed with the state regarding operations at Beacon since the Werners took ownership.

KMUN reached out to the Werners several times while reporting this story, but received no response.

Appeals to port
Today, tenants at the Beacon RV Park do not have regular garbage service. Instead they have a commercial-sized dumpster placed at one end of the park. Many residents struggle to hoist garbage over the dumpster’s high sides. For a while, each morning, park resident Dallas Busse opened a side door to make access easier, but the dumpster is now filled to overflowing and he’s stopped opening the door.

The dumpster is set right across from Susan Gill’s trailer. She says it has started to attract rats, raccoons and scavenging birds.

Meanwhile, a communal bathroom and shower facility is down to a single working shower on the women’s side. Busse recently found a way to get one shower on the men’s side to work, but the water is barely lukewarm.

At a port commission meeting on May 17, park tenants and other Ilwaco residents told port commissioners the Werners are not maintaining the park as required under their lease.

Conklin, the tenants’ attorney, also maintains that the Werners have violated several conditions of their lease with the port. He has asked city leaders to call a meeting with the port and urge commissioners to end the lease with the Werners.

To Conklin, the port’s ownership of the land is one of the more “alarming” aspects of the whole situation.

“There are other parks around the state that are privately held,” he said. “But this one is actually on taxpayer-owned properties … and should be managed, I believe, in the public’s interest.”

“All around the state, localities are struggling with the issue of how do we provide houses — homes — for low-income people. And here the port is going in absolutely the wrong direction in mass eviction of folks who have been living quite stable and paying their own way.”

Limited role
Butch Smith, the chairman of the port commission, says Beacon was never intended for longterm stays.

Under the port’s lease agreement and city rules, the RV park was meant for short-term stays. But for years, both the city and the port looked the other way as Cassinellli allowed tenants to stay year-round and, in some cases, for many years.

Historically, Ilwaco struggles during the quieter winter months when tourists and recreational fishermen are gone. Allowing what was technically a violation at Cassinelli’s RV park was one way the business was able to survive, Smith said.

But after Cassinelli informed the port commission last year that he was preparing to sell, the discrepancy needed to be resolved. When Cassinelli returned later with a potential buyer, then-Port Manager Guy Glenn Jr. negotiated the lease, making it clear the RV park was intended for short-term stays.

However, Smith and the other port commissioners say they knew what the change could mean for longtime residents.

In the new version of the lease, the commissioners included a stipulation: The new owners needed to give current tenants time to find somewhere else to live before shifting back to a short-term stay model. The lease provided six months, but Smith told the Werners state law might require more time.

“We thought when we left that meeting we had a game plan with the new owners,” Smith said.

He was surprised by what happened at the park next. Still, he isn’t sure what the port can do even as tenants increasingly look to the port’s role as leaseholder as an answer to their troubles.

Smith is not aware of violations of the lease. At the port commission meeting on Tuesday, he asked tenants to bring any evidence or statements to the port office.

Margarita Cullimore, an Ilwaco City Council member who attended the meeting, criticized this approach.

She pointed to the letter from Conklin that outlined potential lease violations. She urged port officials to look into the matter themselves as the property owners and not put the burden on the RV park tenants.

Smith maintains that the port has a limited role to play. He said most of the issues he has heard about appear to be matters best handled by the state and the county, and, he adds, it seems like the Werners are now interested in working with people to help them relocate.

“We want this to work for everybody involved,” Smith told KMUN, adding, “The new owners of the RV park, we certainly want them to be successful. And we certainly want the people that have lived at Beacon to find suitable places to live and move to and be very successful, too.”

On the city side of things, Cassinelli echoed Smith.

“There’s only so much the city can do and until all that’s completely defined, the city’s going to be spinning our wheels,” he said.

However, Cassinelli says the city is looking to see where it can be involved.

He told KMUN he does have some second thoughts about selling the park given how things unfolded with the new owners.

“I like most of those people,” he said of his former tenants. “I, you know, went out of my way for them. They didn’t deserve to be treated the way they were.”

Cassinelli says he did not have conversations with the Werners ahead of the sale about what would happen to tenants.

“If you have a rental house do you discuss what’s going to happen with the tenants when you sell your rental house? You might,” he said. “I mean, I just assumed they were running an RV park and mobile home parks and they would keep all the tenants because it was a steady income.”

Like Smith, Cassinelli believes the Werners are “starting to come around.”

But he added, “I don’t own the thing, I don’t have anything to do with it anymore and I try to stay out of it.”

‘We’re your neighbors’
That is what tenants like Busse have a hard time understanding. Busse, who is 22, has lived at the park with his dad on and off since 2011. He has been attending port commission and city council meetings, advocating for his neighbors and himself.

Cassinelli was a good landlord in Busse’s opinion; the mayor even gave him the trailer he lives in now. But he feels betrayed by the sale to the Werners. Cassinelli’s status as an elected official again as of January is a factor.

“Most of our votes are what put the councilmen in their seats,” Busse said, “so the way we were looking at it is: We voted you guys to be here and you’re supposed to be helping the people.

“So tell us: How can you help us right now? Because us, your people, need help. We’re your neighbors and it just feels like you guys are sitting and watching as we just get ripped down by these people.”

Like many who live at Beacon, Busse relies on Social Security and isn’t sure where he would go if suddenly forced to move. He is also worried about the elderly people at the park who face other difficulties besides lack of money.

One woman who lives near Busse’s dad is in her 80s and not well. She was mentioned often in interviews with the RV park tenants. The early vacate notices and then the visits by the Werners’ representatives so unnerved her that she now refuses to open the door to almost anyone. Other people only leave their trailers late at night, afraid their possessions will be seized if they leave during the day.

“Half the people that came to this park come from broken homes, being evicted, cost of living going up too much, just having everything go downhill,” Busse said.

“The fact that these people can’t understand where us as citizens come from when they come and tell us that they’re kicking us out of our homes and we only have so long to do that. Yeah, that scares us because we’re already here trying to survive.”

Gill, the woman whose trailer is near the dumpster, has lived in the park for 14 years.

She was very frightened when the Werners threatened to shut off utilities since she relies on an oxygen tank at night and, with the recent stress, increasingly during the day. Still, she has another place lined up and doesn’t have to worry about where she will go next.

But she feels a duty to stay at the RV park for as long as she can for the sake of her neighbors.

“The more people that work together, the better the situation can be,” she said. “And I don’t have enough problems that I have to be the person that runs out of desperation. I think that would be a really bad cop-out to do that.”