Lawyer for Newport News mobile home tenants presses airport board, U.S. senators on trailer park closure

·6 min read

A lawyer representing some of the families being kicked out of the trailer park at the Newport News/Williamsburg Airport said the $500 to $2,000 per tenant offered to those who leave early is “clearly not sufficient” and insisted the airport must pay his clients “just compensation” to give up their homes.

In a letter sent last month to the Peninsula Airport Commission, attorney Nathaniel J. Webb III, who represents about 20 trailer owners, contends it would be unconstitutional for the airport not to fairly compensate tenants for the loss of their homes. He also wrote separately to Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner asking them to intervene.

The Peninsula Airport Commission, the six-member board that oversees the airport, notified about 77 tenants last month that they must leave the Patrick Henry Mobile Home Park by Nov. 5. The airport, which has run the 75-acre park since at least the 1950s, intends to close it.

Facing removal, about 20 tenants, many of whom have families and children, pooled their money to hire Webb.

“My clients are people of modest means and this sudden change will impose a great hardship on them,” Webb wrote to the commission in the May 17 letter. “My clients had an expectation of remaining in these homes for the foreseeable future.”

The commission told tenants it won’t charge rent between May and November, and has offered incentives for tenants to leave early — $2,000 if they left by the end of May, $1,000 by June and $500 by July. No incentives are offered for those who leave from August through November.

That’s nowhere close to the cost to move a trailer to a new location — which ranges between $8,000 and $12,000 for a move of less than 50 miles, Webb wrote. But then there’s the crucial question of whether the homes can even be moved.

“Many of the homes in the park are not moveable, based on the age of the homes,” Webb wrote. Most mobile home movers and their insurance firms, he added, don’t allow trailers to be moved if they are older than 20 years, which many airport trailers are. The concern is that siding or roofing materials could shake loose and blow off as the homes are moved, he said.

For homes that could be moved, it’s unclear where they would relocated with other area trailer parks having limited vacancies, he said.

That would mean many of the park’s trailers would simply be demolished, even as Webb says many clients have invested “substantial sums of money” into them.

In recent weeks, several residents invited a reporter from the Daily Press into their homes, proudly showing off features such as new kitchens, bathrooms, flooring upgrades, wooden decks, and HVAC systems. Some residents described spending tens of thousands of dollars.

The number of tenants at the park has steadily fallen as the airport hasn’t allowed many new trailers over the past 25 years. There were 250 trailers onsite in 1995, for example, and only 77 today. The airport owns the land, but the tenants own the trailers, paying $461 a month for the lot lease as well as water and trash.

Airport officials say they aren’t planning to develop the site, even as the commission’s long-term plans envision it as a “safety zone” for a third runway.

Airport Executive Director Mike Giardino told the Daily Press that he’s closing the trailer park because it’s losing money when the airport is already operating at a loss. He said the park’s basic infrastructure is failing, and fixing drainage issues alone would cost $1.5 million.

Airport numbers show the trailer park turned a $156,000 profit in the fiscal year that ended in June 2021, but it’s lost about $15,000 between July and March.

Webb maintains that when a decision was made to close the park and take it over, state and federal constitutional protections kick in for the tenants. The Fifth Amendment to the Bill of Rights says in part that private property can’t be taken for public use “without just compensation.” The Virginia constitution tracks along that line, saying “no private property shall be damaged or taken for public use without just compensation to the owner thereof.”

“Just compensation,” Webb wrote, is “designed to make an owner whole for the losses,” and “to put an owner in the same monetary position after the taking” as he or she was before.

Under the case law, Webb contends, the definition of “private property” includes not just land but also “personal property” — such as the mobile homes sitting on a site that’s been taken over. He said he was writing the letter in the “spirit of compromise” and would be coming back “with a proposal to resolve this in the near future.”

Giardino declined to comment on Webb’s letter, saying any response is in the hands of airport attorneys. He wasn’t sure how many tenants took the incentive to leave by May 31, but said the airport is still trying to link tenants up with social service agencies.

“We’re in communication with all of our tenants,” he said. “We understand what they’re going through. And we’re doing our very best to help in the transition.”

James R. “Jay” Joseph, the retired real estate executive who chairs the Peninsula Airport Commission, said he couldn’t comment on Webb’s letter, adding that while he’s “got a lot of thoughts” on the letter, whatever communication the commission has over the issue will have to be through an attorney.

But Joseph did confirm he “absolutely” backs Giardino’s decision to close trailer park and said the executive director was within his discretion to do so without a board vote.

Two days after his letter May 17 letter, Webb sent a letter to Kaine and Warner outlining similar concerns.

He told the senators that some of the tenants at the trailer park are living on Social Security and disability checks. “It may be somewhat misleading to call the residences ‘mobile homes’ as they are not as mobile as the name implies,” he wrote.

He said Kaine and Warner recently announced that Virginia’s airports are getting $400 million from the recently passed federal infrastructure law — with about $10.2 million going to Newport News. Webb noted that the $2,000 incentive for the 77 tenants to leave by May 31 would have amounted to $154,000, or only 1.5% of the recent federal grant.

It was not immediately clear whether federal grant, which would typically be reserved for capital projects, would allow the airport to use such money for payments to trailer owners. But Webb likened the turmoil to destruction caused by natural disaster, for which tenants could receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

“This plan by the airport commission is hitting the residents like a hurricane,” Webb wrote in the letter. “It seems only fair that the airport commission must pay reasonable relocation and reestablishment expenses.”

Any help the senators can provide “will be greatly appreciated,” he said, noting that as of Tuesday, neither the commission nor the senators had responded to his letters.

Responding for both senators, Kaine spokesperson Katie Stuntz said neither office was in receipt of Webb’s letter.

“We are concerned for these families and are looking into ways to ensure that all Virginians have access to safe and affordable housing,” she said.

Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, pdujardin@dailypress.com