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Round two for West Stockbridge trailer park rent increase hearing

Renters hired an attorney to represent their interests at the latest session.

West Stockbridge — Although the weather outside West Stockbridge Town Hall was icy on April 3, matters inside Town Hall quickly heated up as its Select Board—meeting as the West Stockbridge Rent Control Board—heard arguments focused on a proposed rent hike that would triple the monthly payments for residents of mobile home community The Residences on Mill Pond.

“The residents of Mill Pond are members of this community, and they depend on this mobile home park for affordable housing,” said Dan Ordorica, principal in law firm Heisler, Feldman & Ordorica P.C., who addressed the board on behalf of the park’s tenants. He asked the board to reject the rent increase petition.

Late last year, Tom Lennon, corporate agent for Lennon Capital Group LLC, as the owner of the 35-lot mobile home community at 40 Albany Road, West Stockbridge, filed a Petition for Rent Adjustment requesting that the board approve a surge in rent from $241 per month to $797.51 per month. In his petition, Lennon alleged that the appraised value of the property was $1.78 million as of October 3, 2023, although he purchased the tract from former owner Gennari’s Mill Pond Trailer of West Stockbridge a year earlier for $900,000. That 2023 appraised value, according to Lennon, drove the rent increase given a formula that multiplies the park’s valuation by the debt service rate and adds operating expenses to determine the venture’s gross income.

Residents of the park turned out for the first hearing on February 28, providing input on the community’s poor maintenance, including unpaved roads, drainage issues, and prior unsanitary water and sewer problems. At that session, residents urged the board to reject the proposal due to Lennon producing an invalid appraisal and not submitting evidence in the form of receipts and invoices to support the past year of expenses, information that was used to formulate the new rental rate.

Ordorica took issue with the park’s proposed valuation pursuant to Lennon’s independent appraiser, as well as the expenses associated with the venue as produced by Lennon. Ordorica cited a previous finding that, because the park is only on 25 percent of the total tract, the value of that park should be discounted from the valuation of the total site, including the tract’s five-bedroom home, apartments, and garages, amenities not used by the park’s tenants. As a result, Ordorica estimated the value of the park to be about $45,000, a valuation he said was supported by a town assessment of the property that is only $12,000 apart from its sales price.

Ordorica provided instances where Lennon’s operating expenses were allegedly unjustified, including taxes and insurance bills accountable to the entire tract and not just the park; two accounts for water and sewer as operating expenses but only one account covering the park’s services; a claimed landscape expense that was an estimate and not an actual receipt; claimed snow-plowing services deployed for 15 plowings during the past year despite the area not receiving 15 instances where such accumulations were more than two inches; unproven property-management expenses; claimed legal fees involved in acquiring the property; or Lennon’s rent increase request as operating costs.

“Our submission is that petitioning for a rent increase is not part of the normal operating costs of a park,” Ordorica said. “An operating expense is something an owner would accrue each year as part of the annual regular expenses that the owner needs to go through in order to keep up the park.”

Ordorica objected to the claimed capital improvement expenses at the community as Lennon was allegedly under a legal obligation to upgrade or repair the failing water and sewer system previously identified by the local Board of Health as not up to code. Additionally, Ordorica said any reference to recovering such costs by increasing a tenant’s rent must be in the lease agreement signed by the parties.

Longtime tenant Sissy Astore told the board the claimed capital improvements were long overdue, with the tenants not responsible for those costs by a rent increase. “I understand that [Lennon] is an investor and investing means that you invest in something and make money,” Astore said. “It also means you do your due diligence. But to put such a price, to put this appraisal up so high, to go for the appraisal in the first place, is wrong.” She said the method of valuation was established in the bylaws, including the formula to determine operating expenses. “And that procedure for following that formula keeps everybody on the same page,” Astore said. “We’re not on the same page.”

John Freeman, who represented Lennon at the most recent hearing, said that although the entire tract is large, most of that property is connected to the mobile home park, including a barn housing pumps for the water system, the mailboxes, and roads through the site. He said the appraisal was performed by a licensed professional, with Lennon requesting two options for calculation—one including the rental home and one not, submitting the latter as the valuation source.

Lennon clarified that the 15 snow plows were for individual runs, not snow events. He said he traded snow plowing and mowing to a tenant for $3,000 of annual rent, with the town attorney pointing out that the expenses listed $12,000 for those costs. Lennon countered that the estimate was based on the higher rent requested and, should that tenant ever leave, the fees for these services would be higher than the $3,000 in rent forgiveness.

Freeman said the $900,000 sales price shouldn’t be used for valuating the property since the contract was a year and a half ago, the appraisal is in line with the improvements since made to the park, and the general increase in real estate values.

Raising his voice, Lennon expressed frustration at making improvements that provide a benefit to the park’s residents, yet he still remains about $5,000 a month in the red due to the project’s high operating costs.

“Rent control is in our bylaws, and it’s there for a reason,” board member Andrew Potter said to Lennon. “And, you’re doing everyone a disservice by suggesting that somehow rent control is the villain in this proceeding.”

Former resident Evie Kerswell, who addressed the board remotely, alleged that Lennon received $100,000 from the seller in a closing document for the water upgrade, with those funds not disclosed or deducted from the expenses on which the proposed rent increase is based. “We just ask you to use your power to dismiss this,” Kerswell said. “Reject it entirely and make [Lennon] submit an actual petition with pertinent information.”

Chair Kathleen Keresey urged, should the meeting reconvene a third time, the group “be a little bit more productive and a little less angry.”

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