Residency Issue Clouds Wisconsin RV Park
Bob and Su Sarto's property at Rock River Leisure Estates RV park near Edgerton, Wis., has everything they ever wanted.
The 800-square-foot modified park model trailer has wood floors, French doors, central air and a fireplace. Outside, the property has a detached office and a deck wraps around the house, buttressing a rolling lot full of mature trees.
The property is tidy, and the residence looks more like a cottage than a trailer, the Janesville Gazette reported.
"The only thing I can't do with it is put on tires, a steering wheel and an engine," said Bob Sarto, 69.
It's too bad he can't. It might solve a dilemma the Sartos and dozens of other residents at Leisure Estates face: a new rule approved by the park's homeowner's association that would allow the association to fine most residents who live in the park for more than nine months of the year.
Fines would total $1,000 a day, according to the association.
The association's board of directors at the private, gated community at 530 E. Ellendale Road, Edgerton, calls the rule a new "standard" that seeks to define and curb "permanent residency" at the park. The rule would allow the park to enforce its covenant — parts of which developers wrote when the park was founded and zoned as a planned-use development in the mid-1970s.
Under the covenant and its zoning agreements, the park is considered a vacation resort. It stays open year-round, but it doesn't allow permanent living on the recreational vehicle lots that make up the majority of the near 560 lots at the park.
For the Sartos, the rule's a big problem. They sold their home in Illinois in 2003 and moved into their trailer, which is on an RV lot.
Now they have nowhere else to go, and they feel they're being pushed out by park politics and bureaucracy gone bad.
In fact, the Sartos are living at the park illegally. Last year, the park's association sued the couple in Rock County Circuit Court for being permanent residents against park rules. The town of Fulton, which has zoning authority over the park, issued a letter of support for the suit.
Rock County judge Daniel Dillon in May ruled the Sartos are barred from being permanent residents at Leisure Estates. However, Dillon's ruling stopped short of giving a definition for "permanent residency" at the park, and it gave the Sartos no deadline for compliance.
Dillon's ruling also indicated future residency disputes against individuals at the park must first go to mediation.
The ruling has left the Sartos unsure what to do, although they freely admit they're violating park rules by staying in their trailer. They've put their property up for sale and are now looking for a home elsewhere.
"It's like a dream we had is dying," Su said.
Rules and regulations
Les Prisk, president of the park's homeowner's association board and a resident at the park, said the suit against the Sartos and plans to fine park residents are efforts by the association to stay in compliance with its covenants and zoning agreements.
Permanent residency at the park has been a fight for years, Prisk said. The park has posted signs explaining the restriction, and residents are required to sign the park's covenant when they move in.
"All we're doing is upholding our rules and regulations," Prisk said in a phone interview.
Prisk said the park has, in the past, caught heat from the town of Fulton.
"They don't want this place to turn into a low-income development," he said.
Town records show that in 2009, town attorney Mark Schroeder sent notices to the park stating residents living permanently on RV lots were likely in violation of town zoning. The notices stated the residents and the association could face fines from the town of $1,000 a day.
Still, zoning rules and the park's covenants didn't stop the township or the park from signing off on trailers that for years were being built too large for the tiny RV lots at the park, park residents say.
Most residences at the park are far from campers. Many are all-season park model trailers with heat, central air, decks and porches. Some have large additions.
The properties are taxed as trailer homes under state rules, township officials said. Some, like the Sartos', have assessed values of at least $80,000, with annual property taxes ranging around $1,300, according to tax records.
The Sartos bought their lot and trailer in 1998, and spent $30,000 on an addition that doubled the trailer's size. The township and the park approved the work, the Sartos say.
"How can they let me build this and tax this like this, and then say we can't live here full time?" said Bob.
Prisk admits it's a mixed message for park residents.
"It's kind of a backwards situation," he said.
Sarto acknowledged the park has had infighting about permanent residency for years, but he says he and many at the park always had a standing agreement with park officials that if they left for a few weeks each year, they'd be in compliance with the residency restriction.
"People say that's worked for 37 years. What is wrong with it? Why does it have to be changed now? It's just control," said Sarto.
A group of 32 homeowners at the park, some of whom are permanent residents violating park rules, filed a suit Oct. 3 in Rock County Court that effectively blocks the association from enforcing its new permanent residency standard.
The suit calls the standard an illegal change, arguing that it bucks the park's own covenant, which calls for a 2/3 vote of park property owners to change any of its rules, and a ¾ vote to change its covenant.
Prisk said this week a majority of park residents voting on the issue through a mailed ballot approved the new standard along with the fines. But he confirmed this week the vote did not achieve a 2/3 majority.
Prisk said the association will allow any permanent resident who bought an RV lot prior to 2007 to be grandfathered in, provided they pay the association an extra $100 fee and submit proof to the park that they cannot afford alternate housing for three months of the year.
The Sartos believe they're cut off from that offer because of the court ruling against them, but they say they wouldn't agree to it anyway.
"How does anyone know they wouldn't raise the fee or just change the rules later?" Bob said.
Laura Feldman bought her RV lot and the 900-square-foot trailer sitting on it in 2009. Like the Sartos, she and her spouse, John Feldman, live at Leisure Estates full-time and have no other home. John, who is enlisted in the Army National Guard and is an Iraq War veteran, and Laura also are raising their 5-year-old son, Brendan, at Leisure Estates.
The Feldmans missed the park's 2007 cutoff to be grandfathered in as permanent residents. That means that if the park's residency standard is upheld in court, the family could be fined and be left with no recourse but to move out for part of the year.
Feldman said she didn't learn of the park's residency restriction until after buying the trailer.
"It's heartbreaking," she said.
A group of park homeowners last week asked the town's planning and zoning committee if it would consider a zoning change allowing permanent residency everywhere in Leisure Estates.
The committee said such a change would likely require throwing out the park's original development agreement.
The committee then pushed the issue back onto the homeowners, telling them the town has no authority over the park's covenant, and saying the park's association must submit a formal plan before town officials would further discuss a zoning change.
That would likely require a 3/4 vote by park residents who are already divided on zoning and residency issues, and it's not clear whether the park's association would even support such a change.
Sharon Pettigrew lives full-time on an RV lot at Leisure Estates. She considers herself to be in the wrong, and said she's willing to pay extra fees so the park will allow her to be a permanent resident. She wishes others violating the rules would do the same.
"We are the ones that are illegal, not the board. The board is trying to finally do something and put this issue to rest," Pettigrew said.
Pettigrew said all of the court battles and infighting are a detriment to the park, which she calls one of the area's "best-kept secrets."
"It's a big bubble that's going to blow up here soon," she said. "Ain't nobody going to be happy."