By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
BRINY BREEZES, Fla. -- The news traveled fast, as it usually does in this tiny trailer-park town.
A secret suitor was offering to buy the entire municipality for $500 million -- more than $1 million per mobile home. Over shuffleboard courts, pinochle tables and whittling benches, word of the fabulous price soon spread.
" 'A million is a million' and 'Wow, a million dollars!' " said Bob Kraft, 78, a retired high school English teacher from Detroit, recalling initial reactions to the proposal. "That looks good to a lot of people."
If the gargantuan sale goes through, the buyer is expected to wipe this unpretentious beach enclave off the map, obliterating one of the most conspicuous vestiges of the long-ago era when a Florida seaside paradise could be had cheap.
Hundreds or thousands of luxury condos would probably rise in its place, a prospect that has evoked an unexpected surge of nostalgia for this cluster of boxy aluminum homes that are just somewhat wider than rail cars. They sit just feet from one another.
"We used to be an embarrassment," said Tom Byrne, 67, a retired insurance sales manager from Long Island, who had just been boasting to neighbors of reeling in a bluefish. "Now it turns out we're quaint."
Trailers of one kind or another have been on the property since the 1930s, when a farmer allowed passing "tin-can tourists" to park on his beachfront acreage. But in recent decades, many Florida beaches have proved far too pricey for trailer parks, and some communities have forbidden them in fits of snob zoning.
"Briny," as it is known locally, was becoming increasingly noticeable as a throwback, particularly as the coast has become lined with ostentatious mansions and million-dollar condos. But with the specter of so much more development in this area north of Boca Raton -- even though it would be far more grandiose than a trailer park -- has come a sense that a way of Florida life is disappearing.
"It'd be like selling my hometown," said Mayor Jack Lee, 56, who grew up there. He opposes the sale. "We're already living a millionaire's lifestyle -- even without the millions."
"I don't want to live in a condo," said Polly Brady, a retired teacher from Massachusetts.
She and her husband, Tim, a retired vice principal, bought one of the most valuable trailers in town -- on a lot overlooking the beach -- for $150,000, three years ago, they said.
"My kids thought I was crazy," Tim Brady said. "People have preconceptions about trailer parks. But we love it."
The identity of the bidder has not been disclosed by the residents who serve on the park's board. Ken Doyle, president of the corporation that owns the town's 43 acres, would say only that "we're quite sure it's a solid offer."
The owners of the mobile homes all are shareholders in the corporation. In early December, it was announced that nearly three-quarters of the residents in this town of 488 homes had voted to appropriate $30,000 to pay lawyers to pursue the offer.
Earlier this year, 13 homes were for sale in Briny Breezes; since news of the proposal in October, there are none, Brady said.
The founders of the trailer park -- residents themselves who formed the corporation and purchased the land from the farmer decades ago -- set up rules intended to block a developer's buyout, preventing any one person from buying up too many lots, residents said. The buyout proposal avoids those limits by buying the whole corporation of which residents own shares.
The town has 1,100 feet of frontage on the Intracoastal Waterway and about 600 feet on the Atlantic Ocean, and it has long been attractive to developers. The bid is more than 10 times what Briny Breezes is assessed for by Palm Beach County. Residents noted that it may be worth it because by purchasing the entire town, the potential buyer may be purchasing flexibility in what might be built there.
The residents of Briny Breezes, most of them retired, play shuffleboard and join a multitude of hobby clubs, from carving to choir. They say hello to one another as they pass in the narrow streets -- easily done, because many drive around in open golf carts. Some residents boast of being the second or third generation of their family to live there, another strand that holds the community together.
But with one of the largest such real estate sales in Palm Beach County history in the balance, the bid has opened a tense rift among neighbors.
Some are eager to vote for the sale, tempted by the prospect of a purchase price 20 times what many put into their homes. The renewed fear of Florida hurricanes in the wake of recent storms, moreover, has many wondering how long it might be before a direct hit will take it all away anyway.
"It's a mobile home park, we're on the ocean, and there are hurricanes," said Jack Taylor, a retired manufacturer of fire alarms and safety devices. "It's time."
But others rise to anger at the mere thought of selling out. On both sides of the debate, Brinyites tout their devotion to their community, and it is difficult to say even after conversations with more than a dozen residents exactly how a vote might turn out.
Many are loath to come out and say they want to sell. "This is a wonderful place," said Bill Tolford, 81, a retired optometrist from Maine, over a Manhattan outside his beachfront home one night recently. He has been traveling to Briny since the mid-'50s, when his parents had a place. He calculates his home would fetch $1.46 million in the deal. "It's an overly fair price. I know how hard it is to accumulate a million dollars. When you can get it, take it."
Even before the proposed buyout came to light this fall, there were signs that the old Briny lifestyle -- spartan and sunny at the same time -- might be fading. In recent years, participation has dropped off on the shuffleboard courts; attendance has fallen at Briny's annual stage production. The types of people buying into the community have changed, too, residents said, with more who bought purely for weekend visits. One woman bought a place only to be able to walk her dog on the beach.
"It has changed, but I would still rather spend the rest of my days here," Kraft said. "The money is good, but is it enough to buy another place this close to the beach? Not these days."