Spread along an ocean bluff, Treasure Island Mobile Home Park does not look like a community falling on hard times. Palm trees frame ocean views, and bougainvillea tumbles along winding roadways.
But residents say their tightly knit community is unraveling. Higher rents have forced out some of their neighbors, and homes have been torn down. The empty lots where trailers once stood are an ominous sign, say residents of the 50-year-old park. They are reminders that their long battle to keep the park open may be ending.
"We're losing ground here," homeowner Ted Vlasis said. "And it's going to get worse."
Treasure Island residents, who include low-income seniors, middle-income families and wealthy professionals, have locked horns for more than a year with the new owners of the 27-acre park, Costa Mesa businessman Richard Hall and a New York-based partnership, Merrill Lynch Hubbard Inc. The owners plan to eventually develop the site with homes and perhaps condominiums, Hall said.
And while Hall and his colleagues are in no hurry, he said, mobile-home owners are edgy over the owners' recent acquisitions, which some see as a way of readying the land for development, bit by bit. Eventually, Vlasis said, the landowners will possess most of the mobile homes, effectively stifling opposition to the park conversion.
Earlier this year, the Laguna Beach City Council, which is largely sympathetic to the homeowners' concerns, zoned the land for mobile-home use only. That zoning, however, is reversible.
The bitterness stems partly from the fact that residents had hoped to keep the park open by buying the land themselves. Homeowners say their offer was rejected by the previous landowners.
So far, about 45 of the 266 homes have been sold to the landowners. About 27 more are on the market, according to K.P. Rice, president of Treasure Island Residents Owners Assn.
"We've got a whale of a problem," Rice said. "It's a little demoralizing for the people."
The dilemma for mobile-home owners is that buyers shrink from the park's uncertain future and from the 20% rent increase that generally goes into effect when the property changes hands.
Vlasis said Hall has offered him $50,000 for the mobile home he and his wife bought six years ago for $165,000. If he wants to take the home with him, Vlasis said, the owners have offered to pay a $20,000 relocation fee.
"I can take my trailer and $20,000 and go away or I can take $50,000 and go away," Vlasis said. "It's only a matter of time before he pushes everybody out."
Hall, however, denied that homeowners are being nudged from the park.
"If we wanted to pressure people to move out we would have raised rents on the 31 senior citizens who got no rent increases whatsoever," he said.
When the landowners do buy homes in the park, Hall said, the price usually ranges from $5,000 to $50,000. Mobile homes are very rarely relocated, he said.
"For the most part, I think the tenants are happy we're buying the units," he said. "We don't actively solicit units. People come to us." In addition, Hall said, 15 other buyers have purchased mobile homes here since the park changed owners last year. If mobile home owners can't sell, it's probably because the real estate market is slow or their homes are overpriced, he said.
But Rice said that when someone else buys the homes it is only because "the bargains are just irresistible." Residents are often left with the choice of absorbing a financial loss or staying to ride out an uncertain future.
"We're stuck here," Oliver Sprenger said. "There have been a lot of places for sale in the park. The same places put up when I moved in here a couple years ago are still up for sale. Unless they were sold to the owner."
Linda Holdman said she and her husband left Treasure Island because they could not afford a $700 mobile home payment combined with a 27% rent increase that would have brought their lot payment to $1,800.
"We were looking at a $2,500 payment a month to live in a 70-square-foot trailer," Holdman said.
But John Baker, who moved to Treasure Island to retire in 1977, said he and his wife will hold their ground, despite the fact that their rent has risen from $125 to $925 since then.
"We think we can beat them," he said.
Ultimately, Baker, and many other Treasure Island residents, are betting that city officials will ride to the rescue. All three council candidates endorsed by the residents' association were recently elected. All agreed to a list of measures intended to secure the park's future, Rice said.