Lakeside Resident Finds Contact Within A Bureaucratic Maze
By: Elsa H. Partan
After unsuccessfully leaving messages with Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office over a period of months, a resident of Lakeside Estates now has a point person to contact.
The change may indicate that residents are drawing more attention to the decade-old problem of low water pressure at the 90-home trailer park off Route 151.
As the state’s top law enforcement officer, the attorney general represents a last resort for the residents, who, at times, have gone for days without any water in their homes.
Both the Town of Mashpee and the state Department of Environmental Protection have failed to force the landlord to upgrade the decrepit water system through fines and administrative orders. An attempt by the landlord to connect to town water was defeated by voters last year amid concerns that taxpayers would have to foot the bill, an estimated $300,000 to $500,000.
Currently, the landlord, William R. Haney Sr. of MEZ Realty Inc., faces a town fine of $250 a day for water pressure violations since early January, totaling more than $19,000. A DEP fine of $7,000 was also assessed in January based on a record of similar violations reaching back to 2001. Mr. Haney has appealed both fines, and a pre-screening hearing has been set for May 11 in the case of the DEP fine.
The sheer duration of the problem raises questions. Does the government have enough power to protect people when their water supply is at risk? Who bears the responsibility to force the landlord to supply water to tenants, the town or the state?
One resident said the state DEP has not acted quickly enough, and the chairman of the Mashpee Board of Health agreed. A housing law expert in Hyannis said that problems with trailer park utilities have popped up around southeastern Massachusetts, notably in Wareham and Bourne, indicating to him that state departments do not have enough enforcement power. State Representative Matthew C. Patrick (D-Falmouth) said he is open to sponsoring legislation if it is needed to ensure adequate living conditions in mobile home parks, but he is not confident that new laws would help.
Meantime, a nearby example shows what legal action is possible against a mobile home park. Attorney General Martha Coakley announced this month she is seeking a partial summary judgment to force the landlord of the Pocasset Mobile Home Park in Bourne to upgrade a failing septic system. Rep. Patrick previously assisted the residents of the Pocasset trailer park by appearing in court with them.
After Lakeside Estates resident Joyce Fuller watched her landlord ignore orders from both the town and the state for years, she turned to the attorney general, too. At first she got nowhere, making multiple calls over several months. But in the last few weeks, she has made contact with attorney William L. Pardee at AG Coakley’s office.
“It’s promising that I can actually talk to someone in the AG’s office,” she said.
The attorney general’s press agent, Jill Butterworth, said she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into Lakeside Estates. Ms. Butterworth also said that the attorney, Mr. Pardee, could not speak to the press. Ms. Fuller said that Mr. Pardee told her not to talk to the press about certain details they discussed.
Ms. Fuller said she wonders how the problem has gone on this long, and criticized the DEP for acting too slowly. For example, the DEP allowed seven water pressure violations to accumulate before issuing its fine in January.
“You have to enforce the laws you have,” she said. “If you can’t enforce them, why have them?”
Ms. Fuller is not the only one calling into question DEP’s performance. Burton Kaplan, the chairman of the board of health, said that the state holds greater power to influence Lakeside Estates than the town does, and the agency should be moving more quickly to force Mr. Haney to pay its $7,000 fine.
DEP responded to the criticisms in a statement yesterday, saying the department tried to resolve the problem, “by first working with the water supply operator to get him to address it and also by using enforcement tools at our disposal.” The statement continued, “Mass DEP has investigated complaints and the operator has attempted to address this problem, but it continues to occur.” DEP pointed to the May pre-screening meeting on Mr. Haney’s appeal of the fine as progress in the case.
The residents of Lakeside Estates have so far avoided taking another legal path: suing their landlord. “I don’t really think that’s the way to go,” said Ms. Fuller. “It doesn’t move fast enough, it drags out, and it costs a lot of money.” In another local example, the residents of the Massasoit Hills Trailer Park in Wellfleet have banded together to challenge rent hikes and the state of the park’s septic system. Ms. Fuller said she can only find three other residents who will consider voicing their complaints publicly.
If the attorney general declines to take up the case, banding together to challenge the landlord may be the residents’ only option, according to Raymond A. Yox, the managing attorney for the Hyannis office of South Coastal Counties Legal Services. In his 13 years working in housing law on Cape Cod, Mr. Yox said multiple problems with trailer park water and sewage have come up, leading him to believe that it is a widespread problem.
“I can think of three cases just in our area,” he said. “The state departments have not been given sufficient enforcement tools.” Mr. Yox said the lack of enforcement points to the meager political clout among trailer park residents.
“They are not the loudest voices out there, and their interests are not given attention,” he said.
Rep. Patrick said a handful of people from Lakeside Estates have contacted him over the past few years, but none have called in the last nine months. He said he is interested in getting more calls from the residents of Lakeside Estates and determining if new laws could help their situation. Alternatively, he said, the residents can form an association and legally withhold rent until the water pressure problems are solved, similar to the action taken by the Pocasset residents.
Rep. Patrick acknowledges that none of this will help Lakeside residents like Ms. Fuller in the short term.
About once every six months, Ms. Fuller said, the water pressure falters, and she looks outside to find the latest water main break. Sometimes the water is bubbling up near the road, other times it is seeping out of someone’s yard.
“This is 2010,” she said. “These problems with water shouldn’t be happening.”
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