A ray of legal hope is lifting spirits among the small band of holdouts living in the closed Ev-Mar Mobile Home Park in Savage after a Howard County District Court ruling this week that pulled them back from the precipice of eviction.
Judge Neil Edward Axel ruled that the remaining nine families have a right to a Circuit Court jury trial, frustrating for the second time in two months attempts by lawyers for the absentee owners -- heirs of the late Henry and Evelyn Meyn -- to regain possession of the 6.8-acre plot on Gorman Road.
Worse, from the landowners' view, the decision raises the possibility that the working-class residents could get a chance to argue before fellow citizens that they are being unjustly forced from their homes and left destitute by absentee owners anticipating a reported $3.6 million land sale.
"It was a big surprise," said a smiling Audrey Pressley, a park resident.
Ev-Mar is facing a fate increasingly common for mobile home parks along redeveloping U.S. 1 as land values climb steeply. It is the third old trailer park to close in Howard County, and the 241-lot Aladdin Village in Jessup is expected to be next, county officials have said. The closings eliminate a prime source of moderate-income housing at a time when more families are being priced out of the market.
While attorneys for the estates argue that it is a simple matter of regaining control of land their clients clearly own, the residents have charged that they have been forced to live in substandard conditions and offered a pittance in moving expenses because owners are angry that residents opposed a zoning change for the property.
"They can sue for damages, but we're entitled to our real estate back," argued estate lawyer Lawrence J. Gebhardt.
He told Axel in District Court in Ellicott City on Monday that the residents' leases lapsed, the park closed June 1 and its license to operate expired, and that the landlords no longer want any rent from the residents.
Notice that the park was to close was delivered in May 2004, he said, providing the one-year notice required under Maryland law. On May 31 this year, another judge decided that the park is so badly maintained that residents had the right to pay their May lot rents into an escrow fund. The residents also have a civil suit pending in Circuit Court.
Gebhardt argued that the residents' claims of losses are minimal because all of the trailers in the park except for the two new doublewides are too old to be moved anywhere.
Moving expenses should not count anyway, he said, any more than someone moving from a rented house could claim them.
"This is a tenant holding over case. The park is closed. All leases have expired," Gebhardt told the judge. "They have no right to be on the land."
He added that because the operators surrendered their license to operate, "the park may not legally stay open. The estate cannot operate the mobile home park," he said, and it could now take $250,000 in repairs to bring it back into compliance with state regulations.
But Axel ruled on a preliminary motion agreeing with residents' attorney Phillip Robinson that they are entitled to a jury trial.
"It's great. Now they have an opportunity to have some of their complaints heard by a jury of their peers," Robinson said.
Robinson is deputy executive director of Civil Justice Inc., a Baltimore public interest law firm.
"It means I get to stay longer and justice will be served," exulted Kalvin Evans, a resident and father of five who with his wife, Elisabeth, charges that they moved a new $60,000 doublewide mobile home into the park in late 2002 -- at a time when park owners were planning to close.
Now, they contend it would cost up to $20,000 they don't have to move their home. If they have to move out and leave the home, they will be forced into bankruptcy because they owe $50,000 on the mortgage.
Residents say they know they will ultimately have to move, but they hope to eventually win enough of a financial settlement to enable them to afford it.
Peter McAndrews, who with his wife, Ann, lives in another relatively new doublewide home at Ev-Mar, said Axel's ruling "means we have time. Sooner or later, we have to move out. The issue here is how much is it going to cost us. It's not viable to keep the park open."