The owner of Rancho de Calistoga is vowing to press its fight to boost rents at the mobile home park, despite a county judge’s decision denying that effort.
“Our goal is to proceed through the state court and if the state court system says there is no remedy under the state constitution, we will proceed under the federal court system, because we think there is a remedy in the federal court,” Anthony Rodriguez, attorney for HCA Management, said Tuesday.
The company says that the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which restricts the size of annual rent increases at the three seniors-only mobile home parks, unfairly restricts its right to earn a fair return on its business investment.
The company asked the court to overturn the ordinance after an arbitrator said it could raise rents in the 184-space park by $60 per month, to an average of $537, far short of the $625 price HCA had requested under the city’s two-decade-old Rent Stabilization Ordinance.
Napa County Superior Court Judge Diane Price, however, ruled in December that the arbitrator, retired Judge Scott Snowden, had based his decision on “substantial evidence,” and therefore she declined to second-guess him.
She did not, however, rule on the deeper issue of whether the city’s ordinance is so restrictive that it unconstitutionally limits a property owner’s right to use his land, Rodriguez said, and that leaves HCA free to appeal the case to a higher state court.
It also leaves the company free to return to federal court, despite a ruling in November dismissing a parallel federal lawsuit.
In that case, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled that HCA had failed to demonstrate that the city’s ordinance amounts to what is known as a “private taking,” a government action that forces a property owner to give a benefit to another person. In this case, they claim that the city ordinance unfairly requires the owner to subsidize residents by granting them below-market rents.
White’s ruling left open the possibility that, once any state lawsuits are resolved, HCA could return to federal court to argue that the ordinance is instead what’s called a “regulatory taking,” in which a government regulation is so strict that it prevents an owner from using his property freely.
The battle over rents at two of the parks, Rancho de Calistoga and Chateau Calistoga, have dragged on for more than two years and caused considerable controversy.
At Chateau Calistoga, owner Peter Wang last year reached an agreement with most residents that would gradually increase rents by more than $100 per month over eight years.
Earlier this year, however, an arbitrator blocked Wang from raising rents on a handful of tenants who had refused to sign the agreement.
At Rancho de Calistoga, residents had fought HCA’s planned rent hike, paying for a lawyer to handle the arbitration process required by the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance. The arbitrator’s decision allowing a $60 per month increase came as a shock to residents, with many saying they would be forced to sell or face eviction. In the end, the city and various regional social service agencies helped all of those facing eviction.
But Calistoga is not the only city in the county that has struggled to balance mobile home park owners’ rights with those of tenants.
In 2011 the City of American Canyon paid mobile home park owner Ken Waterhouse of Roseville $575,000 to settle a federal suit he filed after the city passed a law to prevent converting his seniors-only park, Napa Olympia Mobilodge, into an all-age facility. The court ruled the city ordinance violated the Federal Fair Housing Act.
A clause in the settlement said the money could be applied toward purchasing the park if the two sides reached a deal.
Later that year, the city passed a rent stabilization ordinance that limits rent increases and provides for both mediation and arbitration.
American Canyon Eagle Editor Mike Waterson contributed to this report.