LAKE CITY — A prolonged zoning battle over a mobile home park in Lake City is likely headed to Clayton County Superior Court.
A city hearing ended Thursday with a panel of mostly city council members voting to uphold the denial of SL Royal Oak LLC’s petition for an occupational tax certificate, which would allow it to do business in the city, on zoning grounds.
Strayer Investments LLC principal Atticus LeBlanc said he wasn’t surprised by the decision to uphold the denial, though. Strayer Investments is the parent company of SL Royal Oak.
“I think it would have been silly to expect anything else,” said LeBlanc. “We knew coming in here that the city was going to turn us down because we’re appealing to the same entity that had denied it from the get-go.”
Mobile home parks are forbidden under city zoning laws passed in 2000 to generate economic growth in the city. However, the Royal Oak Mobile Home Park predated that law and could be grandfathered in as long as its new owners obtained an operating license within six months of buying it from the previous licensed owner.
City officials argue the property had been abandoned for a prolonged period of time before SL Royal Oak bought the property. Therefore, they have argued, a grandfather clause protecting the trailer park’s noncomforming-use zoning status had lapsed.
The previous operating license expired when the company who obtained it lost the mobile home park to foreclosure and it was bought by Global Commerce Bank in 2011. It wasn’t purchased by SL Royal Oak until February.
“It had not been operating for more than six months,” said City Clerk Eric Beckman.
Representatives from SL Royal Oak have argued that even when the property went into foreclosure in 2011 — owned first by a bank and later by the FDIC — residents still paid rent on occassion and therefore the special zoning exception still stood.
John Woodham, attorney for SL Royal Oak, also said bills for utilities, such as water and electricity, were being paid throughout that time.
“Those are all indicative of the operation of a business, whether or not they may have been in violation in the city,” said Woodham.
Both sides said Thursday they had expected for awhile that this case was destined to go to court. LeBlanc said SL Royal Oak had to go through the due process steps of applying for a license and then appealing the denial of that application.
“We’re obviously going to be in a protracted court battle,” said LeBlanc.
A secondary but key issue in this fight is whether the mobile home park is a blight on the community because some of the mobile homes are in dilapidated conditions. The walls are gone on at least one trailer and trees have grown up through the hitches in a few others.
There are 53 trailers in the park, but only three of them are occupied.
“This property has been abandoned, left unkempt and in disrepair,” said assistant City Attorney Emilia Walker. “It is a blight to this council and to this entire community.”
But LeBlanc said he sent surveys to residents living in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. Thirty-eight percent of those residents responded to the surveys, he said.
According to a spreadsheet of survey results, 30 percent of respondents said they were “in favor” of the trailer park being allowed to remain, while 36 percent said marked “Not Opposed (No Conditions) and another 15 percent said they were “Not Opposed With Conditions.” Six percent said they were opposed to the trailer park and 12 percent abstained.
LeBlanc also said removing the empty trailers, for which a total of $13,000 in back taxes are owed by the trailers respective owners, could be done. However, he said it would cost SL Royal Oak more than $100,000 for removal and paying the taxes for the absentee trailer owners. Because of their age, many of the trailers would have to be demolished at the park.
He said he’s already invested $70,000 into the property. If he were to have the trailers demolished, he doesn’t expect to get much money for the trailers.
“That’s probably $10,000,” said LeBlanc.
Therein lies the risk LeBlanc could face if he has the empty trailers torn down without any sign that the city would suddenly let him have a license to operate a mobile home park with the remaining, occupied trailers.
“Right now, the most I can stand to lose is $70,000,” he said. “So, why would I increase the amount at risk without any prospect of a reward farther down the line.”