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River Terrace tenants sue landlord for eviction, water quality

River Terrace RV Park in Soldotna in December 2023.
Riley Board
River Terrace RV Park in Soldotna in December 2023.

An Anchorage civil rights firm has filed a lawsuit on behalf of 19 Soldotna trailer park residents facing eviction. The lawsuit claims not just an illegal eviction, but long standing problems at the trailer park related to the availability of clean water.

Aneliese Palmer, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project, said a group of trailer park tenants approached the Anchorage-based civil rights firm with concerns about their landlord. The tenants of River Terrace RV Park in Soldotna received a notice of eviction in July, and have to be out by May.

“And at the same time, their water, which has had problems for years and years and years, had gotten so bad that they were without basic running water,” Palmer said. “So the confluence of this was they said, ‘enough is enough, we need to assert our rights as tenants, we need to take legal action.”’

The Northern Justice Project filed the suit in Kenai Superior Court on Monday, Dec. 11. It has three primary claims of violations committed by River Terrace’s owners, Gary Hinkle and Brian Bishop.

The first is about water quality. Palmer said the landlords have failed to provide running water for tenants since this summer.

“And that means a lot of our tenants' appliances can’t work, their hot water heaters can’t work, they can’t flush their toilets,” she said.

On top of that, the site of the trailer park has been considered an active groundwater contamination site by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation since the 1990s, when leaked dry cleaning fluid was discovered on the property.

“And so the landlords have understood that this water has very unsafe, highly illegal levels of arsenic in it for years, and they have done absolutely nothing to remedy this,” Palmer said.

The lawsuit claims the confluence of low water pressure and high arsenic levels creates its own problem – according to the suit, when the water pressure drops below a certain level, residents will receive letters advising them to boil water because of possible contamination. However, it says, boiling water also increases the arsenic concentrations in the water, making fresh water wholly unavailable.

The next claim of the lawsuit is that landlords have charged fraudulent electricity bills. Palmer said the electricity charges tenants receive are seemingly random and don’t align with the seasonal variance in electricity use.

The third claim is that the landlords are conducting an illegal eviction.

“Mobile home tenants under Alaska’s Landlord and Tenant Act have pretty heightened protection because of the more precarious situation they’re in, and the law reflects that,” Palmer said. “Here, the landlord has said that he’s evicting the tenants because of some change in use. But he’s never articulated what that change in use is, and the tenants believe that there is none. That he’s evicting them simply because he doesn’t want to fix the atrocious issues with the water.”

Back in June, when the mobile home residents first received eviction notices, many believed it was related to the City of Soldotna’s plans to redevelop the property into a riverfront feature. But the city said they’d made no attempt to purchase the property. Jim Butler, an attorney for park owner Gary Hinkle, said then the reason residents are being evicted is to, “convert the balance of the property’s use to seasonal or temporary use by customers.”

But Palmer said the tenants and her firm don’t believe there’s an adequate planned change of use, as required by law. She said there isn’t a lot of case law on the issue, but that the owners have been inconsistent in their reasoning, which she hopes will be enough to stop the evictions.

Butler, the attorney for one of the owners, said he hasn’t yet been served with the suit, so he couldn’t yet provide comment.

Palmer said Alaska tenant law acknowledges the specific vulnerability of mobile home residents. She said in this case, landlords told residents they would be able to spend the rest of their lives in the trailer park.

“Our plaintiffs have put a lot of improvements into their trailers, they’ve planned to be here, and so with this eviction notice, all those plans, all the wealth they’ve accumulated in their trailer, has gone out the window,” she said.

Tenants worry that a lack of other trailer home locations on the central peninsula could result in them facing homelessness. Some of the plaintiffs have lived at the park for decades.

Palmer said even though the City of Soldotna may not be responsible for the evictions, it can help. There’s a statute in Alaska that allows municipalities to create a mobile home relocation fund, to help residents cover the cost of disconnecting, relocating and reestablishing their home.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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