When James Gochenour asked the management at Woodley-Nightingale Mobile Home Park to fix the gaping hole in his driveway, he was told the job would be done in a week.
That was 13 years ago. And the hole's still there, yawning bigger and deeper with age.
But at least the massage parlor in the little brick building at the trailer park entrance on Rte. 1 has been shut down--transformed by the new owners into a community center for residents.
And the overnight campers that used to rumble through the park in the wee hours of the morning, squeezing alongside the permanent mobile homes, have been banned.
The new owners, the Fairfax County Development and Housing Authority, say that's just the beginning of the multimillion dollar resurrection of Woodley-Nightingale, a sprawling trailer park just south of Groveton in southeastern Fairfax County.
In this diverse community of low- and moderate-income families, young couples and retirees, there has been little doubt that the improvements are needed.
"Quite frankly, the place is a dump," said one county official involved in the Woodley-Nightingale renovation, which will be the largest redevelopment project in county history.
Last year, after almost six years of legal red tape, the county bought the trailer park with a federal grant and began completing plans for a massive overhaul of the community. County officials say it will be another five years before the renovation is finished; the property then will be turned over to the residents, who will own shares in the park and run it as a cooperative.
Woodley-Nightingale opened near the end of World War II, as a way to meet the post-war housing shortage. Over the years, county officials say, it has become a haven for rundown, outmoded, substandard trailers that are turned away by other trailer parks. About 460 mobile homes, campers and small trailers are crammed next to each other on 39 acres of land. Some trailers teeter precariously on spindly, cinderblock legs at the edge of steep, slippery clay slopes. Electrical wires snake across the tops of trailers and twist through tree limbs, creating fire and electrical shock hazards. Sewers and drainage capacities are grossly inadequate.
"I know many residents who leave the park every time there's a high wind or thunderstorm," said Janice Burgess, a Housing Authority representative working out of a temporary office at the park. "They're afraid they'll slide right down the hill."
For the last 20 years or so, county health and housing officials concede they have virtually ignored the filth, clutter and overcrowding, and residents say the private owners have refused pleas to improve conditions.
"We were aware of the problems," said Deirdre Coyne, spokeswoman for the Housing Authority. "But if they'd closed down the park you'd have a huge displacement of these people. It's not as if there's even one other place they can go."
There hasn't been a new trailer park in Fairfax County in 10 years, and the other 10 parks in the county have long waiting lists for new residents, Coyne said. In Fairfax County, where low-rent housing is even more scarce than trailer park space, most Woodley-Nightingale residents can't afford to live anywhere else, she added.
That's what worried residents seven years ago when they discovered the park owners, Kirby and Wren Associates, were considering selling the property for commercial development. For despite the shabby conditions of the park, it was home to about 1,250 year-round residents, almost a fourth of whom have lived at Woodley-Nightingale more than a decade. "For the money you pay ($110 a month), it's ideal," said resident Gochenour.
"This is their home," said Michael Scheurer, senior housing planner for the Housing Authority. "The majority of mobile home owners don't move around. It's not like Lucy and Desi Arnaz anymore pulling their trailer around the country behind the car."
Threatened with the loss of their homes, the residents took their case to the county.
And the slow wheels of bureaucracy began their sluggish spin.
The Housing Authority convinced the county to set aside part of its federal Community Development Block Grant to draw up plans for improving the trailer park. That took two years of public hearings and debate between the Housing Authority and the Board of Supervisors.
The residents clung to promises that help was on the way.
Then came two years of studies and proposals and recommendations: The county game plan for curing the ailments of a post-World War II trailer park that had been allowed to deteriorate far beyond patchwork repairs.
And the folks living at Woodley-Nightingale grew restless, waiting impatiently to be rescued from what the county labeled "deplorable conditions."
In 1979, the county announced it was ready to buy Woodley-Nightingale and a few parcels of nearby property containing dilapidated motels and shabby buildings. There were more public hearings. More debate by the Board of Supervisors. And finally, the notices were sent to the owners of the trailer park. The county was buying them out for $3.5 million.
No deal, countered owners Kirby and Wren Associates. By their estimates, the 39 acres were worth closer to $7 or $8 million. The wheels of the bureaucracy ground to a halt.
And the residents of Woodley-Nightingale, who watched the dirt and garbage on the upper end of the park run down to the lower end every time it rained, waited in exasperation.
Finally, in January 1980, the Housing Authority took the owners to court, asking the court to condemn the property and turn it over to the county. Nine months later, after a five-day court hearing, a jury of commissioners approved the request, but upped the price the Housing Authority had to pay to $5.25 million.
The settlement papers were signed on April Fool's Day 1981, giving the Housing Authority control and ownership of the trailer park--the largest land acquisition ever obtained by the county through a condemnation hearing.
While the frustrated residents of Woodley-Nightingale breathed a sigh of relief, the Housing Authority found it had a few more problems to solve before the actual renovation could begin.
The land had never been zoned for use as a mobile home park; it had been developed before there were any zoning regulations in the county. The Housing Authority now is asking the County Planning Commission to rezone two-thirds of the land for trailer park use. Public hearings won't be held until fall, and some county officials say they expect opposition from groups who are against any low-income housing developments in the county.
The Housing Authority hopes to begin actual surgery on Woodley-Nightingale next spring. Even so, the Housing Authority faces another round of battles before the renovation is complete.
Battle One: Money.
From the start, the Woodley-Nightingale project has had to compete with numerous other areas in the county for community development funds.
In addition, the extra $1.75 million the courts added to the purchase price considerably eroded the money available for actual renovation.
Even now, Housing Authority officials concede they don't know where they will get all the money for the renovation and for relocation costs for residents forced to move. Nor are they sure how much the project will cost.
Some funds will come from federal grants, some from parking fees that residents pay and some from a mortgage expected to be taken out by the co-op once the county turns over the park to the residents.
And county officials have proposed selling strips of property that front Rte. 1 for commercial development to help finance the renovation. But many residents oppose allowing commercial development so close to the park.
Battle Two: Who Stays, Who Goes. At least a third of the residents will have to leave the park to bring the population density within range of current county requirements. Those requirements now call for no more than six units per acre rather than the 12-unit density now at the park. However, the Housing Authority hopes to get an exception that will allow nine units per acre.
"It's going to be a large-scale and an expensive problem," said Scheurer.
Part of the problem is being handled through attrition. Fifty-seven units have left the park since the county took it over a year ago and no new residents are being allowed in.
The county also has notified the 12 businesses that own the 33 rental units in the park that they must move out.
Homeowners with substandard trailers will be required to upgrade their homes or buy new ones in order to meet basic health and safety standards. Those who don't will be evicted, although financial aid will be available to low-income residents who cannot afford to make improvements.
With a median family income of $12,000 a year, that could mean a virtual onslaught of residents seeking help. In addition, residents who are forced to move will be eligible for relocation money--up to $15,000 for those who own their trailers and up to $4,000 for renters.
Battle Three: Man against Nature. The northern end of the park rambles across steep hills coated with slick marine clay. So far, county engineers haven't been able to come up with an economical plan for redeveloping that section of the park.
"I don't even know how they got some of the trailers up there in the first place," said Bruce LaVal, chief planner for community development programs.
For now, county officials have postponed renovation on the northern hills and are concentrating on the southern two-thirds of the park.
And finally, Battle Four: Trees versus Mobile Homes. One of the few attractive characteristics of Woodley-Nightingale is the stand of stately beech, oak and gum trees that shade the park in summer and anchor the steep hillsides in rainstorms. But some of the trees may be pulled down to make room for expanded trailer pads, laundry facilities and recreation areas.
"They (residents) love the trees," said Art Giguere, president of the park's civic association, who has lived in their shade for 21 years. "I'll be upset if those are chopped down."
"I'm more interested in finding a place for low-income people to live than in saving a tree," said the Housing Authority's Scheurer.
Despite the many hurdles still to go, county officials say that in five years, there will be a different park at Woodley-Nightingale. It will be owned by the residents. It will have good drainage, safe electrical systems, playgrounds for the kids, better streets and more community facilities.
Still, Scheurer warns that residents shouldn't expect too much.
"This is not going to be luxury living," said Scheurer, "but it will be a quality environment."