Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park

Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park in St. Helena.

Over strong objections from the owners of Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park, the St. Helena City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday in favor of an ordinance that would cap rent increases for some of the park’s residents.

Councilmembers Paul Dohring, Geoff Ellsworth and Mary Koberstein voted for the new rent stabilization ordinance, with Mayor Alan Galbraith and Councilmember Peter White voting against it. The ordinance will undergo a few modifications before coming back to the council for final adoption.

If enacted, annual rent increases at the 55-and-over park would be capped at 3 percent over the previous rate or 100 percent of the percent change in the CPI, whichever is less. Larger increases could be permitted through meetings with residents, mediation and arbitration.

The cap would apply only to residents who opt into rent stabilization by choosing a short-term lease of one year or less. Residents who select a long-term lease would not be subject to rent stabilization.

The city would pay all administrative fees until 50 percent of the park’s leaseholders opt into rent stabilization.

A Nov. 2 letter from the park’s attorney Anthony Rodriguez raised the prospect of a lawsuit and the potential closure of the park if the city enacts the ordinance, which he said would “destroy” the park’s business plan.

“Unless the parkowner is willing to simply accept the diminution of its yearly profit and a significant reduction in the fair market value of its property, the proposed ordinance is certain to result in years of costly, time consuming and unwanted litigation for the City, the parkowner and the tenants,” Rodriguez wrote.

The ordinance would leave the park “little chance of earning a profit in excess of the amount it earned in 2017, thereby creating a disincentive to stay in business,” Rodriguez wrote.

Instead of rent stabilization, Rodriguez proposed either a city-sponsored rent subsidy program or a rent credit program run by the park.

City Attorney Tom Brown and his associate Deepa Sharma told the council that Rodriguez’ claims lack legal merit based on previous court rulings, and said they are confident the ordinance would withstand a legal challenge.

Greg Reynolds, managing partner for the park’s ownership group, said the majority of park residents oppose rent stabilization. He told the council he currently has no plans to sell or change the use of the park, but if the ordinance passes, “you will kill us over time.”

“We would have no choice other than to begin exploring alternatives,” Reynolds said.

Councilmember Geoff Ellsworth said he supports the ordinance, but wants to revisit in one year to see how it’s working out. He said he was also willing to consider other solutions like subsidies and credits.

“We want to work with the ownership to make sure that this gives them a fair rate of return,” he said.

Councilmember Paul Dohring said he’d seen how rent stabilization benefited residents of Calistoga’s mobile home parks, and he wanted St. Helena to at least give it a two-year trial run.

“If this thing is going off the rails … we are committed to looking at it and making it right for you and the park so that the rents are stabilized and you enjoy a fair return,” he told the owners.

Councilmember Mary Koberstein said the ordinance is about more than just Vineyard Valley. It’s part of the city’s broader goal “to stabilize, maintain and improve access to housing for the whole city,” she said.

Koberstein suggested a few changes to the ordinance, including to the vacancy control provision that allows the owner to increase rents to market rate under some circumstances when a space changes hands.

She also proposed increasing the rent cap from 75 percent of the percent change in CPI to 100 percent. The other two councilmembers who were in favor of the ordinance agreed.

Galbraith and White continued to oppose the ordinance.

“Most people in the park are happy with it the way it is,” White said.

Other action

Also on Tuesday, the council:

- Adopted an urgency ordinance creating a temporary use permit system for pop-up businesses.

City staff may now award over-the-counter temporary use permits for arts and crafts events, concerts, fairs and festivals, and indoor pop-ups including retail uses, museums, restaurants, cafes and seasonal sales events.

Events will be limited to 14 consecutive days, or six two-day weekends, within a 12-month period. Pop-up uses will be permitted for up to 90 consecutive days, and seasonal sales events will be allowed for up to 30 consecutive days, up to four times within a 12-month period.

Formula restaurants will be prohibited, and events targeting more than 200 attendees a day will require council approval.

The goal is to liven up the downtown business scene, which has struggled with low sales and declining foot traffic. The council approved the program as an urgency ordinance so that it could be in effect during the holiday shopping season.

The ordinance takes effect immediately and will last for 120 days, until March 13, 2019, unless the council decides to extend it.

- Appointed Bob Frescura to the Parks and Recreation Commission.

- Amended its code of conduct calling on the city’s elected and appointed officials to behave respectfully in private conversations, including phone calls, texts and emails. The code of conduct, adopted in June, had already covered public behavior.

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