A Prince William County appeals board issued a unanimous rebuke and reversal Monday of a county decision to clear out a mobile home park, demolish many of the homes there and bar residents from rebuilding in the wake of severe September floods.
Holly Acres Mobile Home Park was one of the hardest hit communities after Tropical Storm Lee pummeled Northern Virginia on Sept. 8. In the wake of the storm, as many of Holly Acres’ residents sought shelter elsewhere or were left homeless, county officials condemned every mobile home unit closest to the rapidly-rising Marumsco Creek.
In assessing the damage, county officials decided that anything that sat in a federally defined floodway had to be demolished and nothing could be rebuilt there. The Board of Zoning Appeals overturned that decision Monday in a 5-0 vote. Board members said that state law overrode the county’s rules regarding the rights of a property owner to rebuild after a flood and the county used the wrong guidelines to make the decision.
“Really happy!” Holly Acres resident Sylvia Carranza said after the board vote. ”We lost everything. All we need now is a house to live in.” She said she believes that she could have made enough improvements to her mobile home to save it if the county had allowed her back in after the flooding. She plans to move back after units are rebuilt.
“It’s a joyous, joyous occasion,” said Kelly Dickerson, the property manager who has worked in the park for 11 years. “These are my families.”
The BZA vote also calls into question county officials’ decision-making in the wake of the flood.
For example, the county entered only two mobile homes to look at the damage before deciding that all 63 in the area had been damaged by more than 50 percent of their assessed values — the trigger for allowing demolition. Damage visible outside the property was enough to make the decision, they say. “The units in this area had relatively low assessed values,” a county report states. “[T]herefore relatively minor damage would still account for more than 50 percent of that value.”
While some of the homes would have needed to be demolished, property owner Henry Ridge said that other homes could have been saved. Further, if the county had allowed residents back into their homes to remove carpet and make other minor repairs, damage might not have been so severe from water allowed to fester, he said.
Residents in the largely impoverished, Latino community clapped shortly after the decision was read. Several told board members in Spanish through an interpreter that they had no place of their own to live — they were staying with friends or relatives while they awaited the county’s decision — and that the county’s lack of inexpensive housing made it difficult to find options elsewhere.
Henry Ridge, who owns the property, said the the community’s low-income, Latino residents were too easily ignored by county officials.
“Is there some bias toward the Hispanic community?” Ridge asked.
Mark Moorstein, the attorney representing Holly Acres, said the county made a hasty decision in the wake of a disaster. He ascribes no malice to county officials, but agrees with Ridge’s sentiment that the low-income, Latino community was too easily brushed aside.
“The county needs to recognize that everyone is a citizen,” he said.
Unless the county Board of Supervisors decides to appeal to Circuit Court, the BZA’s decision is considered final. Ridge, a longtime county resident who now lives in South Carolina, said he plans to rebuild — with mobile homes raised slightly.
There are still lingering issues in regard to Monday’s decision. CSX Railroad controls a nearby culvert that Moorstein says has been improperly maintained and contributed to the flooding. He and Ridge have also said that the county’s lack of attention to Marumsco Creek also contributed to September floods.
Moorstein said changes would need to be made to ensure flooding is avoided in the future. He said he is looking to work with the county and the railroad company to work out a deal for improvements.