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Hookup fee sparks a fight

Residents of Colony Cove Mobile Home Park are preparing for battle over a utility hookup fee of $2,300 per homeowner.

The owners of the park must pay that fee to connect to New Port Richey's municipal sewer and water system, and they are trying to pass the cost along to residents.

But the residents contend that the need to connect to the municipal system is the fault of the park's owners. The residents say the owners neglected to maintain the park's own treatment plant, which was closed last year.

"We feel that as long as it was the fault of the sewage plant they were supposed to maintain, we shouldn't be charged the whole pass-through charge,"' said Harry Whitney, treasurer of the Colony Cove Home Owners Association.

Most of the 200 residents who attended a meeting Wednesday night voted to hire an attorney to help mediate an agreement between the homeowners and park management.

John Steele of the Federation of Mobile Home Owners said his organization is interested in what happens at Colony Cove because it might presage problems for other mobile home parks.

The state "is taking all these little plants and putting them out of business," Steele said.

The Federation of Mobile Home Owners even will offer financial help to the Colony Cove homeowners if the case goes to court, Steele said. The federation can match as much as $10,000 for legal services for mobile home park residents who fight their owners, he said.

The park owners are American Retirement Communities Partnership, MLH Income Realty Partnership and MLH Property Managers. All are divisions of Merrill Lynch Inc. None of the owners could be reached for comment Thursday.

In a letter to park residents, the owners said the charges were the result of impact fees imposed by the city for the mandatory water and sewer hookup. In August, officials of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) issued a final order that the park shut down its faulty sewage plant and hook up to the city's system.

Florida law requires that mobile home park owners maintain all utilities and equipment in good working order. A 1986 DER inspection found Colony Cove's small sewage plant in good working order. But three years later, in 1989, an inspection found it substandard.

Bob Heywood, a member of the association's negotiating team, said the plant was working fine until Merrill Lynch took it over. Since then, the plant has gone downhill, he said.

"We believe the plant wasn't upgraded as time went on and wasn't given proper care," Heywood said. "Our question is: Should we have this tremendous pass-on charge when all this other stuff has taken place prior?"

The association now will wait to see if something can be worked out between the park owners and the residents, Whitney said. In the meantime, the $2,300 payment is due May 1.

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