Thursday, December 9, 2021
Dec. 9, 2021

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Woodland RV park residents get ‘third and final’ reprieve from power shutoff

Residents at Lewis River RV Park form HOA, working with Northwest Justice Project

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:

The Lewis River RV Park has been granted a “third and final” short-term extension to its electrical service, averting a power shutoff that had been scheduled for Thursday morning. The new cutoff deadline is 1 p.m. Tuesday.

This marks the third week in a row in which a planned Thursday morning cutoff has been averted by a last-minute extension, but Cowlitz Public Utility District public relations manager Alice Dietz said that a fourth extension would not be offered.

“He knows what he needs to do and what his obligations are,” she said, referring to the RV Park’s owner Jerry Reeves.

The previous two extensions came about after Reeves met with Cowlitz Public Utility District staff on the day before the cutoff deadline and worked out a deal. The county has also maintained garbage service at the park.

Cowlitz County chief of staff Axel Swanson said Reeves and the utility district agreed to another extension on Thursday morning, but the county commissioners chose to impose a hard deadline this time after consulting with the county prosecuting attorney’s office about the feasibility of using emergency homelessness funds to maintain services.

The legal aid program the Northwest Justice Project has also gotten involved to help the residents assert their rights as tenants, and Swanson said the county chose the Feb. 4 cutoff date in the hope that the Northwest Justice Project’s involvement would help resolve the situation before the deadline.

Although he has repeatedly agreed to the ad-hoc extension deals, Reeves has not outlined a clear plan for a long-term power solution. At a meeting with park residents on Wednesday evening, he didn’t give a clear answer about whether the power would be shut off the next day.

“It’s not going to be up to me,” he said.

Changing owners

The situation arose earlier this month when the park’s former landowner, John Berman, informed residents that ownership of the park land was about to transfer back to Reeves, who had owned the land prior to Berman.

After the switch, Reeves refused to set up an account with the Cowlitz Public Utility District. He argued that the park residents were still Berman’s tenants through an LLC that Berman had created to manage the park, and he argued it would be Berman’s responsibility to maintain the utilities.

Berman said his LLC could no longer operate on land he didn’t own, and it would be up to Reeves to re-establish a management structure for the park, including a new utility account.

That stalemate has persisted for the past two weeks, with the power kept on in the meantime through consecutive one-week extension deals between Reeves and Cowlitz PUD and services paid for by donations from the community.

The situation has been fraught for the park’s residents, many of whom are low-income tenants who moved into the Lewis River park because it was more affordable than other options. The park had an estimated 75 RVs when the dispute began two weeks ago. The park’s water is supplied from a well with an electric pump, so a loss of power would also result in a loss of water service.

During the past two weeks, the park residents have formed a homeowners association to facilitate their work with the Northwest Justice Project. Lisa Waldvogel, a Northwest Justice Project lawyer, told The Columbian earlier this week that the agency and the residents were prepared to take legal action on Thursday if the power did go out.

The latest extension meant that the resident group would hold off from any immediate legal action, Waldvogel said on Thursday, but the tenants are still prepared to bring their case to court if a permanent solution is not reached before the new cutoff deadline next Tuesday.

Wednesday meeting

Residents who spoke to The Columbian voiced frustration about what they characterized as new rules and fees that Reeves announced this week, including a $40 fee to reapply for leases and a $600 deposit fee.

The new fees were one of the central topics of discussion at the Wednesday evening meeting. About 20 residents met with Reeves and three associates in the RV park’s general store, which had been closed since Berman’s departure. Several residents expressed anger at the fees, particularly the deposit fee, arguing that it amounted to essentially a double rent payment with no forewarning.

Speaking to The Columbian on Wednesday morning, Reeves said the new fees and rules were part of the process of re-establishing management of the park.

He said he was working to re-acquire his own management company’s licenses, which had expired during Berman’s tenure. He characterized the new lease applications as a fresh start, which he said was necessary because Berman had left no records behind when he returned control of the park to Reeves.

Berman disputed that claim when reached for comment on Wednesday, and said he’d reached out to Reeves beforehand to coordinate a smooth management transition, even offering to continue managing the park while Reeves re-acquired the licenses – an offer which he said went unanswered.

At the meeting, Reeves and his associates maintained that they had been given no records of the tenants’ existing leases, nor even a roster of the park’s current residents, which they said left them with no option except to sign everyone to new leases and restart everything from scratch. The $40 fee will pay for background checks, one of Reeves’s associates said, and the $600 deposit is a standard practice for a new lease.

Some of the residents at the meeting appeared sympathetic to the challenge presented by the lack of records, but they still pushed back against the idea of having to pay new deposit fees since they’ve been living in the park, in some cases for years.

At the same time, Reeves continued to assert that the park’s residents were still Berman’s tenants, and he said he intended to take legal action to resolve that dispute. None of the issues appeared to have a clear answer at the end of the meeting.

Columbian business reporter
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