Clock is ticking for Conestoga residents as utilities will be shut down Oct. 11

Residents fearful of what is going to happen to them next month

Conestoga residents have less than a month to find an alternative place to live before the City of Monroe shuts off all utilities to the mobile home park. There are 69 homes, not all occupied, but those that are have until Oct. 11 to find alternative accommodation. Of the occupied units, 16 of them are individually owned by the people who live in the mobile home – many still paying a mortgage on those homes. The others are renting their mobile homes from the property owner.

The utilities are being shut off as the result of an unresolved dispute between the city and the property owners over code violations that city officials say render the property unsafe.

“Disconnecting utilities to the property is due to safety concerns of the utility infrastructure and connections to the units themselves along with other service infrastructure concerns throughout the property,” said Logan Propes, Monroe city administrator. “It is a safety concern not only for the residents but for safety in the city servicing the utilities and sanitation there.”

Photo credit: City of Monroe
Photo credit: City of Monroe
Photo credit: City of Monroe

The City sent the property owner’s registered agent, Anthony Gene Garritt, of Cumming, a letter on June 7, 2019, notifying him of all the code infringements that needed to be repaired. It noted that these include electric service deficiencies causing a fire hazard, sewer services causing unsanitary conditions, and damaged interior roads that had not been maintained. The letter noted that this puts service vehicles, such as garbage collection trucks, at risk for damage.

Propes said the property owner had attempted some cosmetic repairs but had done nothing significant to comply with the code requirements.

“Back in June the owner made some minor efforts on remediation but by and large they were deemed insufficient by the Code office and were largely in the cosmetic realm and did not address most of the glaring issues found throughout the park,” Propes said. A meeting between the city and Gravitt on July 10 also did not produce results that were able to satisfy the city so on Aug. 8, the city’s attorney sent a registered letter notifying Gravitt that the utilities will be shut down on Oct. 11.

Cindy Little, director of Faith in Serving Humanity, and a consortium of 58 local churches and Hope Monroe have been attempting to help the residents who have been put in an untenable position. Through no fault of their own, the families have to find a new place to live and now have less than a month to do so. Little has been attempting to broker some sort of compromise between the city and the property owners who she says have told her that every time they believe they have tried to comply, the city moves the goal post. She is most concerned about those who own their own homes and have mortgages. They are not in the position to pay for a move, for a new home, and continue to pay a mortgage on a home they cannot live in. Many have lived in Conestoga for more than 20 years.

But nothing so far has produced anything to ease the situation and with no resolution in sight for the residents of Conestoga, FISH and local churches are trying to help find alternative accommodations and move those who have managed to do so, beginning next Saturday.

“When you’re ready to move you need to reach out to me and let me get you scheduled. We’re going to get the U-haul trucks and we can come and move you. I will have boxes and I ordered Uline tape so you can tape them. We also have containers that we will be bringing and I have a whole lot of Delta airline blankets that we can wrap your stuff in and make sure that everything gets moved in one piece,” Little said at a community meeting of Conestoga residents last week at the Walton County Senior Center. She said there would be some “big strong football players” and other volunteers from the churches to help pack for those who are elderly or have medical issues.

At the community meeting last week, as well as at Tuesday’s Monroe City Council meeting, residents from Conestoga turned out to share the heartbreaking situation that had some angry at both the city and the developer, others in tears and many just plain desperate as they don’t have any idea where they are going to go or what they are going to do.

“I heard that there were tent cities that sprang up after Katrina when people had nowhere to live. I can see that happening here,” one of the residents told Little at the community meeting. Little agreed that is a concern as there is insufficient lower-cost housing for all the residents. A tree fell on the home of Dolores Puckinpaugh on south Broad in Monroe on Sept. 1 rendering it uninhabitable and she has not been able to find alternative accommodation. So a whole community is unlikely to find a place to move to in the local area, especially in such a short amount of time.

“A lot of us work here – at the hospital, some of us are bus drivers. This is our community. We live here. We don’t want to leave,” the resident continued. Others spoke about their health issues. Those on oxygen questioned whether it was even legal to turn off utilities on people who are reliant on power for life-sustaining medical equipment. Some of the other concerns and question raised included, what about the children who were in school.

“If they could just hear the prayers of my boys at night,” said Rodney Mitchell, a single father raising two young boys in a home in Conestoga.

Another woman spoke of her service dog, “I have seizures and I need my dog to warn me. What am I going to do about that.”

And yet another resident spoke of returning from the hospital last month after having part of his leg removed due to diabetes to find the note on his door telling him the utilities would be cut on Oct. 11. He is in a wheelchair and has no idea how he is going to cope with the move. The video below by Darrell Everidge records some of those who spoke at the Conestoga community meeting on Sept. 5 of their plight and desperation.

The residents decided they were going to attend the City Council meeting on Sept. 10 and some of the questions to which the residents wanted answers included;

  • What about those with health issues that couldn’t find alternative accommodations?
  • What about children who were in the school system if their parents couldn’t find anything locally?
  • What about those who had jobs in the area and were not in a financial position to travel extra distances to get to work, especially after the expense of an unplanned move?
  • How are they going to pay new security deposits for new homes and utility hookups as well as the costs to move. The city of Monroe offered to transfer utility deposits for those who manage to find alternative homes within the city.
  • What about animals – children’s pets, service dogs, etc?
  • What about those who are reliant on power for medical equipment if they can’t find anything by Oct. 11?
  • What about those who own their homes and can’t afford to keep up a mortgage as well as pay deposits and rental at a second location.

They did not, however, get their questions answered as their situation was not on the agenda and public comment is not addressed by the council. They just had an opportunity to voice their situation and ask for the city’s consideration. The churches had offered to provide the resources and services to help get the mobile home park up to code and the residents themselves said they have electrician and plumbers who could work as contractors. But the city is digging in its heels.

“We feel terrible about it, but it is the owner’s fault,” Mayor John Howard said after the City Council meeting. He said the property owner would have to come and pull the permits necessary or a genuine buyer, with a signed contract, who was prepared to commit to making the necessary repairs to bring it up to code. He noted that the property owner was not in attendance. Attempts to reach the property owner by phone were not successful.

Little said she has spoken to the owner, as well as a potential buyer, and was hoping to get them all together to see if anything could be done to help save the Conestoga community – and possibly improved it to make it a safe and healthy community going forward. She spoke to the City Council at the meeting, begging the city for “mercy and grace” when it came to turning off the power for those 15 families who own their trailers and cannot move them by the cutoff date. Some of the residents themselves spoke as well.

“I own my mobile home that sits in Conestoga Mobile Home Park. I’ve had it there for 20 years. I’m not here just for my voice but for the voice of many,” said Rebecca Lowe, going on to say she knows that most of the blame lies with the owners. “But there are so many of us who do own our own home. We have checked there is nowhere we can move our home to. One lot I did find I can’t move my home to because it is too big. One of our concerns is what is going to happen to my home if I move.”

Lowe went on to ask the city to provide extra police service to avoid the owned homes being looted if the residents have to leave them behind once the utilities are cut. She also pointed out that some of the violations are actually the city’s responsibility. “For years I have asked for my cable to be buried. When my neighbor cuts his grass, he rides over and cuts my cable and I have to ask the city to come out and repair it.”

Some of the residents followed, speaking about their personal situation and asking that the city allow them to make the repairs themselves, and reiterating that some of the code violations were actually a result of work by city employees. A  resident sent photographs bearing witness to what they claim are some of the city’s code violations.

Code violations that residents of Conestoga claim are the City of Monroe’s responsibility. Contributed photo
Code violations that residents of Conestoga claim are the City of Monroe’s responsibility. Contributed photo
Code violations that residents of Conestoga claim are the City of Monroe’s responsibility. Contributed photo

Mostly, the residents kept their pleas respectful, just telling their stories and asking the city to take their plight into consideration. A pastor spoke of the mission in the community that has turned around a reputation of a dangerous and scary place to one that is a family community, albeit one that needs a lot of property repairs.

Todd Ware, a pastor at First Baptist Church of Monroe, also addressed the City Council, asking that the city look into what he perceived was a serious offer by a potential buyer to bring the mobile home park up to code.

“To me, that seems like a great way to move the city forward. That he will be able to at least present a plan to see whether or not it is feasible in order to provide these folks with a real nice place to live,” he said.

In the meantime, the clock continues to run out. Those who can are making arrangements to move with the help of the churches and volunteers in the community – and those who can’t continue to pray that something will happen to help them before the lights go out on Oct. 11.

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