RV Horizons promises changes at Houlton property
Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series that looks at some of the issues facing residents of manufactured home communities.
TOWN OF ST. JOSEPH — RV Horizons district manager Rod Engh promised Town of St. Joseph officials they were at the end of a two-year struggle to get the Colorado-based real estate company current on its payments to the town.
The pledge came just moments before Thursday night's unanimous Town Board vote to reinstate the operating license for RV Horizons-owned St. Croix Meadows RV Park.
The 5-0 roll-call vote came roughly 10 weeks after the board allowed the license to expire at the Houlton property — which it did on June 30 — and nearly one year after the board first voted not to renew the park's license in June 2017. The board reversed that decision nine days later at a special meeting the day before the license expired.
PREVIOUSLY: St. Croix Meadows residents search for answers
Town Board meeting minutes indicate both votes not to renew the license stemmed primarily from RV Horizons' inability to meet its obligations, both financial and otherwise.
"I wish I could change what's happened in the past," Engh said. "I can't. But I can say that it's going to get better — I promise. You can put that in the minutes."
When asked for further comment after the meeting, Engh said he wasn't allowed to talk to reporters and media inquiries were handled through their legal representation.
Mark Hazelbaker, an attorney with Kasieta Legal Group, LLC, in Madison, attended the Sept. 13 meeting on behalf of RV Horizons with Engh, who recently replaced former district manager Greg Rommes.
"When you voted to non-renew the license, you got the message across," he said. "A lawyer was dispatched to listen to your complaints, I relayed those complaints, you have a different manager now. I think you can see that things are changing."
While Town of St. Joseph Supervisor Steve Bohl described the sentiment of RV Horizons' presentation as "fantastic," he said he's heard similar promises for the last two years.
"My concern has always been the monthly reporting, the time that we spent trying to track those funds down," Bohl explained.
After a recent meeting with RV Horizons to determine exactly how much money the company owed the town, Bohl recalled, RV Horizons sent the town a check for a bulk amount of $4,500 with no explanation.
"And I get it ... OK, yeah, cover your tail end — get them money, get them money somehow so that we can solve a problem," he said. "But that just, again, creates the same issue that we've had for 24 months or so. It's still more work for our clerks."
Hazelbaker said at the meeting the check was an attempt to assuage anxiety around untimely payments from the park, which operates under Houlton MHP, LLC — a subsidiary created when RV Horizons purchased the property in fall of 2015.
"You criticized us for not paying on time, we tried to pay in advance and now we're being criticized again," he said.
St. Joseph Town Board Chair Thomas Spaniol confirmed by email to RiverTown Multimedia that to his knowledge, RV Horizons is current on their payments to the town.
Town Supervisor Theresa Johnson, who made the motion to approve the park license through June 30, 2019, said she did so because she believed RV Horizons representatives were there to show their commitment to the community.
"But I can assure you, if you prove me wrong in the faith that I have in you three, I'll be knocking on your door and you're not going to like it because I will not back down on that," she said.
Committed to improvements
In an email to RiverTown Multimedia, Hazelbaker relayed a single message on behalf of RV Horizons.
"The Moulton MHP appreciates the Town's willingness to renew the Park's license," he wrote. "We are committed to continuing to improve the Park."
Engh addressed a list of issues that plagued the park over the previous two years and told the board "significant progress" was made in recent weeks within the community.
All future payments would be made on time and proper permits would be obtained for work within the park, he assured town officials. General park maintenance, tree removal, drilling a second well, repairing the lining in the sewer pond and the installation of a backup generator were all in the works as well, he said.
Near the end of August, almost two months after the park's license expired, former St. Croix Meadows on-site manager Beau Freese said he started to see work done around the community.
The only problem, Freese said, was the majority of the work seemed to be cosmetic.
"But now since they had (the license revoked), it seems like they're scrambling, throwing money here and there just to make it look pretty, because when they came by, they're cutting trees up front," he said at the time. "The things that you do see them doing, it doesn't feel like — that's not really important right now. Get other things done. I don't — we don't care about landscaping upfront, we don't care if it looks pretty upfront right now. We want to get the infrastructure built better."
Freese said he never saw a budget while employed with RV Horizons from November 2017 through April 2018.
"So I didn't know what I could spend on what, I had no money," he said.
According to Freese, he spent the majority of his time doing research, talking to vendors and getting bids for various projects — including the backup generator — of which very few came to fruition.
As part of his presentation to the board, Engh provided copies of an agreement for professional services with CBS Squared, Inc., out of Chippewa Falls to fix the lining in the sewer ponds and an invoice for $19,600 from Butterfield Drilling & Irrigation, which is the down payment on the new well.
At the bottom of RV Horizons' home page, rvhmanagement.com, it states: "We started with one manufactured home community. We have built that into the 5th largest chain of manufactured home communities in the U.S. through nothing but hard-work and dedication to our goals. Because we have grown slowly and deliberately, we know our customers extremely well."
Freese had a different take on the company. He thinks RV Horizons expanded too quickly and is scrambling to pick up the pieces.
"The biggest issue I see is just the lack of, I don't know if it's the lack of planning or the lack of communication, because residents don't know what's going on," he said.
Many of the promises made by Engh during the Town Board meeting stand in direct contrast to the experiences Freese had while employed by RV Horizons.
Engh said RV Horizons has low-interest payment programs to help residents keep up with home maintenance and he wants to implement the same kind of program in Houlton.
"It was everything," Freese said of the infractions he was asked to write up. "They wanted me to basically go around to everybody, hand out notices, write up, basically, citations against them, you know, if they weren't following the rules. They throw you a five — five days to get it fixed or get ready to get out."
According to Shandra BP-Weeks, organizing director with MHAction, a national organization of manufactured home owners trying to improve their communities, since corporate ownership of manufactured home communities began to expand in the mid-1990s, she's seen new management models emerge, in particular with RV Horizons. The days of "mom and pop" shops working with tenants to address issues and keep them in their homes began to fade.
"A part of the model is being aggressive with eviction notices," she explained.
According to a search of St. Croix County court records, previous owners of St. Croix Meadows filed 30 cases with the courts from 2004 through 2013, of which 23 were evictions. From February 2016 to December 2017, RV Horizons took 35 cases to court — 34 were evictions.
In the days following the Town Board meeting, Donna Fjelstad — who has led a group of concerned St. Croix Meadows residents — continued to gather signatures and build her case for a class action lawsuit against RV Horizons.