Jeff Jardine

Noncomforming Ceres trailer park along Hwy. 99 on its way out

For nearly seven decades, the Lazy Wheels Mobile Home Park has been living on borrowed use.

It is in an area zoned commercial, which is why the park has been in violation for its entire existence, resting at the base of the revamped Whitmore Road overpass along the east side of Highway 99. It has long been considered a blight on the city, a most unattractive collection of about 30 single-wide trailers, worn blue tarps, debris and old vehicles that stood out even more when the attractive new overpass came into being in 2011. The park lost several spaces to make room for the overpass but still houses anywhere from 50 to 100 people at times.

But it also represents affordable housing in an area that can never get enough of it. Largely Latino in population, most of the residents have lived there for many years.

That will begin to change Monday night, for the betterment of the city but the detriment of the residents, when City Council members rezone the property to highway commercial use as expected. That will make it a prime site for a Denny’s, an In-N-Out Burger, an Arco AM-PM or similar business. Caltrans, which purchased the land several years ago as part of the overpass expansion, put it up for auction and received five bids, Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said.

Indeed, the agency posted signs at the park months ago detailing the auction dates – the signs are now gone – so the tenants knew they someday would have to move. They just didn’t know when and still don’t. This much is certain: They will have to go.

Caltrans spokesman Skip Allum confirmed Friday that the state received bids on the property in a recent auction. It is in escrow with the sale pending. It will be an item on the California Transportation Commission’s agenda during its October meeting, because the commission must formally approve the sale. The state won’t release the winning bidders or winning bid amount until the sale is finalized.

Ceres police busted a meth lab there about a decade ago and have responded to more than 130 calls for service to the park since 2011, ranging from drugs to auto thefts to assaults to shots fired and just about every other reason.

Meanwhile, the state will attempt to recover some of the rent and utility payments lost over the years because some of the residents – not all of them – stopped writing checks years ago.

“We’re actively working to collect the back rent and utilities at market rates,” Allum said.

The city, he said, will be responsible for helping residents relocate to other trailer parks or properties because it is responsible for changing the zoning. Wells, meanwhile, said that responsibility falls to the new owner.

In a few years, maybe, the property will be home to restaurants or stores or a gas station. But often, such aesthetic improvements come at the expense of people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

It will leave residents such as 53-year-old retired construction worker Martin Parilla, who relies on his Social Security income, wondering where he’ll go. His old trailer, which was already in place when he bought it in the 1990s, probably can’t survive a move. He said he is one of those who actually does pay Caltrans $600 a month to rent the pad and about $200 more for utilities.

“I’ve been there 20 years,” he said. “I don’t know where I’ll go.”

Same with Jacqueline Trejo, 21, who said her parents pay their rent of $650 to the person who owns the trailer they call home. Whether he pays the state or not, she didn’t know.

And Eduardo Padilla has spent all of his 22 years living in the park. His parents own their trailer and pay roughly $800 in rent and utilities but don’t have the financial means to move it. Like Parilla’s, it is old and unlikely to hold up if moved.

“They’re trying to move us out,” his mother, Enedina Padilla, said using her son as an interpreter. “They haven’t offered us anything to move.”

She pleaded for photographer Andy Alfaro and me to write something that would change the outcome for them. But that isn’t going to happen. She lives in a park that doesn’t and hasn’t conformed to its zoning use for decades.

If anything, it’s a wonder how they’ve managed to stay so long.