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New ownership at Bonita Springs RV park sparking stress, eviction concerns among residents

Barbara Clark has to give up her dog of 9 years and move back to Connecticut. The residents of Gulf Coast Camping Resort in Bonita Springs, FL, got eviction notices at the beginning of the December after new owners purchased the park for 5 million in October.
Andrea Melendez
/
WGCU
Barbara Clark has to give up her dog of 9 years and move back to Connecticut. The residents of Gulf Coast Camping Resort in Bonita Springs, FL, got eviction notices at the beginning of the December after new owners purchased the park for 5 million in October.

Many have called the Gulf Coast Camping Resort in Bonita Springs a seasonal or full-time home for years. But that is rapidly changing.

Rents shot up dramatically after a new owner came in and within a day or so of paying the higher rents, the residents were told to get out.

Considering that Southwest Florida already had a housing crisis before Hurricane Ian, what’s happening at the RV and mobile home park, possibly in the name of housing storm victims, is especially upsetting.

Young men ride around in a golf cart ticking off names and addresses of people who call the newly purchased camping resort home.

There are 261 lots with RV style campers and mobiles homes, some that haven’t moved from Gulf Coast Camping Resort in decades.

The workers are asking if they can buy the 80 or so lots that are owned and not rented.

The renters are facing even more pressing issues under the new ownership: They are being told to get out and that their homes will be demolished.

Many homes have already been demolished.

Exactly why the lots are being cleared is up for debate.

Gulf Coast Camping Resort residents just want more time

Resident Dwyane Gaulding says new land manager Ralph Principe told him he wants the lots cleared to make room for a 5-star RV resort.

Gaulding also said he’s spoken to a surveyor from FEMA who he says told him FEMA would pay Principe much more than the renters do.

“I looked at that guy in the eye and said, ‘Ralph, how do you sleep at night? And how do you think this is ethical of what you're doing to elderly people?’ I said, ‘one of these people could be your mother, or grandmother or father or grandfather,’ and he responded to me, quote, unquote, ‘I have a business. And I don't care about people.’”

Many of the residents are elderly. Many have limited means. Some are disabled.

Many we spoke to have pre-paid their rent until the end of season but are still being asked to pay monthly now.

Even after paying – monthly or annually, these renters are being told they need to vacate the property by December 31.

“So it was talking about Merry Christmas to you, you know, and Happy New Year to you. I mean, where are we going to go? I mean, this is the worst Christmas I've ever had in my life. Trying to force me out,” said Peter Rossingnol.

Rossingnol lives in a camper. He moved here 8 months ago. He pays monthly. He’s asked if he can stay through April when other mobile home and RV lots may have room for him.

He’s been told no.

Florida laws give protection to people who reside in mobile homes within a designated mobile home community more so than people like Rossingnol who live in a fifth-wheel or RV.

Because there are both on the property, it will make for an interesting legal argument. And there are expected to be legal showdowns.

Regardless, the matter is upsetting to residents like Barbara Clark.

“…. I've been sick since this happened. I have multiple sclerosis and the stress. my stress level is just to the max," Clark said.

New owners took possession of the park at the end of October. Within days, some renters learned there would be a steep rent increase starting Nov. 1.

After paying the rent, they are getting notices to vacate the property.

“That this is a whole scary thing. So I told the gentleman, I said, ‘Hey, sir, you know, you know congratulations on buying the park. You know, look forward to you know, coming down, support your place, and there must be some kind of misunderstanding. Here's my rent, that I paid up my receipt where I paid on QuickBooks.’ He goes ‘… I didn't buy the business, I bought the land, and I want you off my land,’” Gaulding said.

Principe tells WGCU he is following Florida state statutes. Attorneys could argue that he is not.

Although they fear Principe will retaliate, many residents have nothing to lose by talking to WGCU News.

Most are clearly terrified for what the future holds. Those with means to move on are deeply troubled by what’s going on.

“I went up to get my mail and I was like, ‘look what happens if I cannot get out? You know, I'm disabled. I'm trying to find a place. There's nothing here. I'm looking north. I'm trying to find a place.’ And he was like, ‘you're out. That's it. You put yourself in this position by renting, I didn't put you in this position. You put yourself in this position by renting,’” Clark said.

Clark is on social security disability because she has multiple sclerosis.

She said she wasn’t able to pay her bills last month so that she could try and stay in the place she has called home since 2015.

“And I didn't contact them to tell them why but I didn't pay any bills. So that I would have the money for December's so that I would be at least be safe for this month,” she said, her voice overcome by emotion.

A family member of her is helping Clark find a place up north to stay but is not allowing her to bring her 9-year old Labrador retriever mix.

“It's killing me.” She said. “I'm so upset about having to get rid of him.”

Others like Mike Harless feel just as helpless.

“I can't move my trailer, the tires are all rotted underneath and flattened and they are telling me that we got two weeks to move all my stuff out and what's left they're going to come and crush off into pieces,” Harless said.

John Potts used to divide his time between living in the RV/mobile home park and living with his son in Chicago.

Not long after arriving back in Florida in early November, his son died of a massive heart attack. Potts, who is 80, hoped to live out the rest of his days at the Gulf Coast Camping Resort.

Like others, he’s being told to get out.

“I'll be 81 on Christmas Day. And this is what I've got to go through now. And these people are, I mean, they're not very nice to people in the park,” Potts said.

Wendy Wells, an advocate for the elderly, has been trying to get the attention of Florida Rural Legal Service as well as state officials to try and intervene on behalf of the residents.

She’s not having any luck.

She said people have signed the titles over through intimidation and after signing over the places

Michelle Trunkett, an attorney and manager with Florida Rural Legal Services, said attorneys have been discussing the rights of mobile home and RV residents from around the area.

She said many have contacted her office because they fear they are going to be displaced so that FEMA trailers can move onto the lots they rent to provide temporary housing for Hurricane Ian victims.

Trunkett said some residents may have protections that they don’t know are afforded to them.

A spokeswoman from FEMA confirmed it has been out on the property to survey the lots but at the moment FEMA does not have a business deal with Gulf Coast Camping Resort.

It’s not lost on any resident like Rossignol that WGCU has spoken to who say if FEMA comes in to help those displaced by the hurricane, it will in-turn displace them.

“So we're going to be out on the street with no place to go. I've checked every RV park around here, they're all full because it's season,” he said.

Florida Rural Legal Service can only intervene if people ask it to and if the person qualifies. The number to call is 239-334-4554.

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