NEW PORT RICHEY — Michael Stanley's mobile home sits in the heart of a city demolition zone. But he's not going anywhere.
As crews Tuesday began razing the first of 50-some crumbling units in the Walden Pond Mobile Home Park, Stanley watched with relief as the heavy machinery turned trailers across from his home into metal toothpicks.
"It already looks like a war zone, so how is this going to be any worse?" he said. "It's just good to see some improvement."
Stanley, 50, a retired electrician, is one of a handful of residents still living in the dilapidated park off Oelsner Drive, just west of U.S. 19, and soon his mobile home will be one of the few left standing. About 10 units still have either owners or renters living in them and will be spared in the city-mandated cleanup.
The demolition came after months of wrangling between city officials and the park owner, Walden Pond LLC, which sent letters to residents in July telling them the park was closing and they had to leave.
Walden Pond managing partner Paul Beraquit has told the City Council that residents had stopped paying rent and his partnership tried to close the park for financial reasons. City officials said the park failed to follow proper eviction procedures. Some residents stayed, some left, and looters began tearing up empty units for scrap.
Stanley stayed behind because he owns his mobile home and it can't be moved from its concrete slab. He bought it 10 years ago and shares it with his 6-year-old son, Kody.
"It's the only home my son has ever known," Stanley said. "I've not been made an offer that is anywhere close to fair. I'm not asking for anything more than what's fair."
In the meantime, the park owners removed a Dumpster from the property, resulting in the accumulation of a fetid heap that city crews removed in September, at a cost of about $2,000.
The deteriorating conditions brought city code enforcement officer Liz Nichols to Walden Pond about three times a day to monitor the park and write numerous citations. New Port Richey Police Chief James Steffens also told council members that he had to increase patrols at the park dramatically to fight crime.
"I am really happy to see this day," Nichols said Tuesday at the demolition site.
During several hearings, an appalled City Council blasted Beraquit for allowing the conditions to deteriorate. The council offered to allow Walden Pond to conduct its own demolition, but the owners refused to sign a deal to reimburse the city for its costs at the park. So the council voted to hire its own contractor to raze the condemned units, then send Walden Pond the bill.
Last week, Beraquit made one last plea for his company to handle the demolition itself. The council voted him down.
After the hearing, he said Walden Pond may sue the city for what he called a "terrorist intervention."
"Why are they using taxpayers' money to do this?" Beraquit said. "Most people walk away from things like this, turn their back. We didn't go anywhere. It makes no sense. We're here. We're ready to do it."
It's unclear what the final tab will be, but the city is spending about $60,000 on the demolition alone. Walden Pond also owes more than $25,000 for unpaid water bills and trash pickup. If Walden Pond doesn't pay, the city could place a lien on the property.
Crews hope to finish the demolition and cleanup of the park by Thanksgiving, according to Joseph Matissek, owner of SC Signature Construction, the contractor hired by the city to complete the project.
Two units have asbestos, Matissek said. They will be taken to a separate landfill that can accept asbestos.
He said although the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ruled air quality testing was not needed during the project, it's being done anyway as crews tear down the units. The city is paying a separate contractor to monitor the air.
"We still have people living here. So it's best for them, it's best for us, and it's best for the city that it's monitored. It's about safety for everyone involved," Matissek said.