For 25 years the residents of Canary Cottages, a community of 90 mobile-home dwellers in College Park, have looked out for each other, sharing meals, newspapers and transportation. But the little community has unraveled and the futures of the members become uncertain now that their home sites may be sold to a hotel chain.
"It used to be nice and quiet, and people were friendly. Now they all stay in their trailers. It's caused bad feelings," said Ross Robertson, a pile driver operator who has lived in the trailer park with his wife and son for five years.
The hotel chain, Days Inn of America, has a contract with the present owner, AB & S Corp., to buy the seven-acre property for $950,000, but only if the county rezones the land for commercial and office use.
Though AB & S plans to close the park even if Days Inn does not buy the land, the residents, many of whom are elderly, have been protesting the rezoning in the hope that they will be able to stay.
Last March residents were given an eviction notice effective yesterday, but last week, Days Inn made a proposal to the residents: If they support the hotel at the zoning hearings, Days Inn will let them stay on the land until construction of the $4 million, 150-room hotel begins next March, and will help them find another place to live.
So far, 30 families have agreed to the proposal, relieved that they'll have more time to move, but the agreement has come in for sharp criticism.
"If people sign the agreement, it's out of desperation," said Vicki Gottlich, an attorney with Legal Aid's Senior Citizens Law Foundation who is representing nine residents. "The seniors' trailers are the oldest, and they need more time to move out. The agreement will buy them additional time."
Residents say they have no place else to go, that there are no vacant lots in Prince George's County and that parks outside the county will not accept old trailers. Many already have sold their homes and bought new ones, but not everyone can afford to do that, Gottlich said.
The residents took an informal survey of the seniors' incomes and found an average of $500 a month, mainly from Social Security. Rents at the trailer park vary from $69 to $140, while most parks charge $150 or more to rent a lot, according to residents.
Days Inn has met with the residents several times. "This isn't any philanthropic effort on our part," said John McDonough, attorney for Days Inn. "We're making concessions because we need their support."
Days Inn is working with Carlton Beall, a part-owner of the Fernwood Mobile Home Park in Capitol Heights, who said he would like to rezone 19 acres adjacent to the Fernwood property to accommodate Canary Cottages families.
Some of the residents say they would like to move to the new park, but others say Fernwood is too far from shopping areas and their doctors.
Not all of the residents would be guaranteed a spot in the new park because some of the trailers are in poor condition, according to Beall.
"The trailers cannot be substandard," Beall said. "I'm not going to be a party to substandard living. Some of those trailers are very, very old."
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission already has approved the rezoning, but the zoning hearing examiner denied the application. The final step will be a vote by the County Council, probably in October.
Days Inn also is appealing to the County Council to form a Tax Increment Financing District that would allow all property taxes paid by Days Inn to go into a fund to assist Canary Cottages residents affected by the development, including relocation costs and money to improve trailers, McDonough said.
Of the original 90 families, only about 50 still live in the park. Included in the tract are 1.8 acres of vacant land that Days Inn says it will lease to 30 mobile-home families for two years, after which time the hotel chain will try to sell the land to an office building developer.
Meanwhile, most of the residents are looking elsewhere for home sites, and for some that means a change of life style. Naomi McDaniel, 61, has arthritis, high blood pressure and glaucoma. She has lived alone since 1970, when her husband died, and has been at the trailer park 33 years, longer than anyone else.
McDaniel receives $528 from Social Security each month. Her rent is $74, and she pays $400 every three months for medication. She says she can't afford to buy a new trailer and has no one to help her move furniture and all of the memorabilia on her walls. She has put her name on waiting lists at several senior citizens homes.
"I don't want to go, but I have to," she said. "I like living in a trailer park because you feel safe and you're close to neighbors. At least we're living independently and not on welfare. It's going to break my heart to sell this home."
Two elderly persons died within a week after moving from the park, and Legal Aid's Gottlich said a contributing factor may have been "transfer trauma," a term used for a major upheaval in an older person's life.
Blanche Dennison, 85, moved with her husband into her daughter's home in Deep Creek Lake. While unpacking two days later, she had a stroke and died, according to her former neighbors.
Another woman, known to neighbors as Mrs. Barbie, 87, fell and broke her hip and died within a week after moving to a senior citizens home.
Regina Prezzi said she and her disabled husband are not going to move until they have to. "A lot of people don't know what's going on--it's so complicated," she said. "They've split us up and they're moving us all out."
Many of the residents complain that they have been forced to sell their homes at below-market prices.
"We can't bargain on our trailers--we have to sell for whatever we can get because we were pressured into thinking we had to move by July 31," Prezzi said.
Ross Robertson opposes the agreement with Days Inn. "The agreement is going to bind people like slaves to Days Inn. When there's a zoning hearing, they're going to have to go," he said.
The eviction has not been difficult for everyone. Thelma Haugh, 60, sold her home, bought a new $20,000 trailer and will be moving to a senior citizens trailer park in September. But she said she would miss Canary Cottages.
"We liked this one because we had 40 seniors," she said. "When you cooked a meal, you'd share it. One person would take The Post and the other the Journal and we'd share newspapers. If someone wasn't feeling well, we'd look after him."