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Facing opposition from the owners of Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park and many of its residents, the St. Helena City Council is moving ahead with a rent stabilization ordinance that would limit rent increases in the park.

An ordinance would cap rent increases for park residents on short-term leases of one year or less. Residents would be able to choose between a short-term lease that would be subject to rent stabilization or a long-term contract that would not.

Caps can be based on a set percentage, tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), or a combination of both. On Tuesday, the council directed staff to come back with a draft ordinance that would cap rate increases at 3 percent or 75 percent of the CPI, whichever is lower.

Administrative fees would be split between the park owner and the city. The owner would be prohibited from passing its share of the fees on to residents until 75 percent of the park has opted into rate stabilization.

The idea, which originated during a City Council goal-setting workshop in 2017, has drawn strong reactions from residents of Vineyard Valley, St. Helena’s only mobile home park.

Park resident Andree Bryan presented a letter opposing the ordinance signed by 149 park residents, which she described as a majority of the park.

Critics say that with the park’s longstanding policy of 3 percent annual rent increases, rent stabilization is unnecessary, could damage their strong working relationship with the park’s ownership, and could threaten home values and reduce owners’ ability to maintain the park. They also worry about administrative fees being imposed on residents.

“It ultimately will undermine the business model and impact our ability to continue on the path we believe to be best practice,” said Greg Reynolds, managing partner for the park’s ownership group.

Supporters say rent stabilization would give residents the choice to opt in or out, and would function as an insurance policy protecting those who opt in from the prospect of steep rate hikes. They also favor a vacancy control provision that would prevent the park from increasing the rent when a mobile home is sold to a new owner.

Councilmembers Paul Dohring, Geoff Ellsworth and Mary Koberstein were in favor of moving ahead with crafting the ordinance, although Ellsworth said he’s withholding judgment on whether he’ll ultimately vote for it.

“I’m still of an open mind and want to hear full discussion,” Ellsworth said.

Dohring said the ordinance would need to be reviewed in two or three years to see if it’s working.

“If it’s not working … and if the support is still not there, then we scrap it,” he said.

Mayor Alan Galbraith and Councilmember Peter White said they oppose rent stabilization.

“I don’t believe a majority of the folks at Vineyard Valley support it,” Galbraith said.

Interim police chief hired

In other action on Tuesday, retired police chief Tim Foley was sworn in as interim police chief. He will serve for one year while the city evaluates options to permanently replace former chief Bill Imboden.

The city has occasionally hired retired officials – such as former Interim City Manager Larry Pennell – to fill vacant positions during recruitment for a permanent appointment.

Imboden resigned in September to become chief of the Hercules Police Department. Lt. Chris Hartley has been serving as acting chief.

A former lieutenant with the San Francisco Police Department, Foley was most recently police chief in Nevada City, where he reported to City Manager Mark Prestwich. Foley retired in February.

He will earn a salary of $167,520 with no medical or dental benefits.

Sewer rate litigation

In closed session, the council authorized staff to initiate litigation against Hansford Economic Consulting for alleged errors in the city’s new wastewater rate structure that have resulted in “substantial shortfalls” in revenue, according to City Attorney Tom Brown.

Consultant Catherine Hansford calculated the current rate structure. After the new rates went into effect, city officials discovered that wastewater revenues were falling far short of projections due to an apparent computational error by the rate consultant.

The council authorized litigation, but Brown said the city is in contact with the consultant’s attorneys and is considering resolving the matter through mediation.

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.