Resort park feud hits legal draw
TOWN OF FULTON A Rock County judge has tossed out a legal tactic used by a vacation resort park to prohibit and fine residents who choose to live at the park year round.
Rock River Leisure Estates, a resort park in the town of Fulton, cannot create and enforce changes to park covenants without approval through a vote by residents, Judge Daniel T. Dillon wrote in a ruling Thursday.
But Dillon also threw out a request by a group of park residents to bar the park from taking legal action against them for having what they consider fair access to their property.
Most of the properties in question are improved park model trailers, house-like structures on lots originally designated for recreational vehicles.
Dillon’s decision is a legal draw that does not settle a two-year dispute between residents and the park’s board of directors. It’s prompted some residents to sell their properties and leave the park.
Dillon’s ruling suggests the fight could next end up in legal mediation, although it’s not yet clear whether either side would take that approach or whether either plans to appeal the decision.
Park officials and the board sought for the court to instead uphold a new rule that would allow the park to fine most residents who live year round at the park.
The rule used a definition of “permanent residence” that barred most residents from living in the resort for more than 9 months of the year.
A group of 43 residents joined a lawsuit that argued the court should throw out those rules, saying a definition for permanent residency was arbitrary and unfairly limited their rights to access their own property.
In his ruling, Dillon called the park’s standard unenforceable and invalid because it wasn’t included in resort’s original legal guidelines, which were written in the 1970s, according to park records.
The board “may not create its own definition of ‘permanent residence’ and then sue to enforce compliance,” Dillon wrote.
Instead, the standard would have to be approved by a covenant change, which requires a three-quarters vote by residents, the judge ruled.
The ruling is good for the group of residents because it means the park’s board of directors cannot unilaterally enact a rule linked to a “permanent residency” definition, which is what it had legally argued it had the power to do.
Park residents in the past have indicated it is unlikely that residents would ever vote to approve such a covenant change.
Still, Dillon’s ruling leaves room for the park to file individual lawsuits against residents who continue to live in the park year round. It would be up to a judge, then, to rule on each of those cases on their own merits.
The residents’ attorney, Harry O’Leary, called that part of Dillon’s ruling “a Pandora’s box.”
Leisure Estates officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Some owners have the property as their only home, and when they leave, they stay with relatives.
Many residents said they believed park officials had been lax on enforcement for so long that the sudden crackdown on residency seemed as though it was an attempt to target and oust them.
A court filing by Leisure Estates in 2010 that sought to bar two residents from using their modified park model trailer year-round was a catalyst that sparked the homeowners’ lawsuit, residents said.
Year-round residency at the park is a public safety issue, park board official Les Prisk told The Gazette last year. He claimed the park can’t maintain snow removal all winter.
Prisk also told The Gazette that town of Fulton officials had put pressure on Leisure Estates to enforce a residency rule to prevent the park from turning into “low-income housing.”
Yet a handful of residents, Prisk included, are allowed to live at the park year-round. Those residents argue they live on lots with a zoning designation that allows year round access, according to park rules.