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Park owners get relief from court

In my column last month, I said that the Florida Mobile Home Act requires the owner of a mobile home park to give the tenants affected by a change in the use of the land a notice one year in advance of the projected change of use.

My column then said that the Florida Mobile Home Act requires the park owner to notify the affected home owners, within 90 days from the date of this one-year notice, of the park owner's election either to relocate the mobile homes to another park owned by the park owner or to pay to relocate the mobile homes to another park.

While the owner of the mobile home park is still required to give tenants a one-year notice, the statutory requirement that the park owner either relocate the mobile homes or pay to relocate the affected mobile homes has been determined to be unconstitutional by Florida's First District Court of Appeal.

The court's decision appears to be based on a finding in the trial court that the supply of vacant lots in comparable parks is inadequate, that it costs $10,000 (on average) to move a single-wide mobile home and that it would cost the park owner 25 percent to 1,434 percent of the land's value to move the tenants to another location.

The court also said that the alternative "buy-out" would include to some extent that portion of the market value of the mobile home determined by the park itself _ its location, the amenities offered _ and that it would cost the park owner 32 percent to 1,174 percent of the land's value to purchase all the mobile homes and appurtenances.

The court then ruled that the statutory requirement that the park owner either relocate the mobile homes to another park owned by the owner or to pay to relocate the affected mobile homes compels a park owner to undergo possession, occupancy and perpetual tenancy of the park owner's land by others until the park owner complies with an economically impossible requirement to purchase or move property that the park owner does not own.

The court found that the intent and effect of this provision of the Florida Mobile Home Act is to coerce the land owner to surrender indefinitely the right to possess and occupy the land and to exclude others for the exclusive benefit of the lessees, who are not the owners of the land and have chosen not to become the owners of the land.

In essence, because the cost to buy or move the mobile home approaches or exceeds the value of the land, under this provision of the statute a park owner has no real option to change the use of the land and is effectively required to endure the mobile home tenant's physical occupation of the property forever.

This, of course, is a valid concern for park owners. But of equal concern is the acknowledgement that a mobile home owner has made a substantial investment and presently has no legal protection that his or her living arrangement will not be disrupted at a later stage of life without any assistance by the park owner.

The challenge to this provision of the Florida Mobile Home Act began in November 1990. This Florida District Court of Appeal decision was rendered in 1994.

A decision of a district court of appeal represents the law of Florida unless and until it is overruled by the Florida Supreme Court. In the absence of a conflicting opinion from another district court of appeal or a revision to this law by legislative action, this First District Court of Appeal decision will bind all Florida trial courts.

This provision in the Florida Mobile Home Act granting mobile home owners assistance in the event of a park's change of use, which was found unconstitutional, has not been revised or amended despite three subsequent legislative sessions. In addition, a court is not likely to overrule a prior decision construing a statute where the Legislature has met in several sessions since the court decision without modifying or amending the statute, as it may properly be claimed that the Legislature has acquiesced in the decision.

_ David D. Eastman, an attorney who represents the Florida Manufactured Housing Association Inc., and Peter M. Dunbar, an attorney who represents the Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida Inc., assisted in this article.

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