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Lakeside Gentrification: Trailer parks and campgrounds the last bulwark against waterfront developments

Lakeside Gentrification: Trailer parks and campgrounds the last bulwark against waterfront developments
April 14, 2022 James Proffitt

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part story. Read the first part here.

Ed Matusik and his wife were in their new summer vacation trailer for just a month at Bay Point Resort and Marina in 2006 when they received an eviction letter: the investment group which recently purchased the site had plans for a new development in that section of the resort.

For more than 75 years, Bay Point has hosted vacationing families on about 225 acres of land jutting into Sandusky Bay in Marblehead, Ohio.

An organized effort to purchase land failed, as did a lawsuit. All was lost for the Bay Point vacationers who owned trailers on those lots. Plans for an upscale future did not include those mobile homes. In the end, most of the families abandoned their trailers or sold them to scrappers for a couple hundred bucks.

“I guess I was a little bitter because the gentleman who sold it to us claimed he had no knowledge,” Matusik explained. “I was bitter at management at the time, because I spoke to him three or four times and he just swore to me that nothing was going to change.”

But while the idea to purchase the rented land didn’t work for Bay Point’s renters, it’s been successfully orchestrated in some cases to preserve Lake Erie access for families that may never have another realistic shot at it.

And it’s happening more frequently due in part to skyrocketing real estate prices.

While farming, commercial fishing and quarrying were once staples of Ottawa County, now fishing and tourism are. Lake Erie’s draw for both anglers and lake lovers is constant and intense. In 2021, tourism officials from Shores and Islands hosted tens of thousands of visitors, distributed 50,000-plus printed guides and had more than 2 million digital visits. More people than ever long to get as close to Lake Erie as possible.

But while Midwesterners continue to seek out the area for recreation and leisure, the pool of options for people who can’t afford their own lakeside vacation home is rapidly shrinking.

Cooperative ownership scenarios, like this one on the Marblehead Peninsula, are becoming more common as real estate prices rise. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)

Rising prices lead to bidding wars

A 2004 Toledo Blade article cited that real estate prices in the region jumped more than 50% in the previous five years. Long-time real estate agent Tomi Johnson agreed, saying that nearly 20 years later, the market is still on fire.

“The market was peak in 2020 because we literally sold out of it,” she said of waterfront and water-access sites in the area. “One house I listed which happened to be right behind me on the lake, it sold for $101,000 more than the asking price and the people paid cash.” In 2021, according to Johnson, if you managed to find something on the water, you’d end up in a bidding war and pay up to 10% over asking price.

Even factory-built mobile homes, once considered affordable as a vacation spot for a single blue-collar household or family group, are increasing in price. In some trailer park communities, used mobile homes on the water or with water access can sell for $100,000 or more, situated on rented land with monthly lot rents that can exceed $500.

Now is the time to sell, especially if you’re looking to move away from water, according to Johnson, who said most people who sell waterfront property have a difficult time finding a similar place to buy.

Vacationers who previously rented at Behlke’s are now owners at Dock of The Bay Park. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)

Collective ownership works, but it’s not common

Cleveland residents Mark and Amy Shafer owned a trailer at Behlke’s, a 52-lot park on Sandusky Bay, for 19 years.

“Every weekend our kids grew up there,” Mark said. “Our first year lot rent was $240 and the last year (the Belkes owned the property) it was $260. The owners lived there, and it was their life.”

After the Behlkes’ children inherited the property, there were health issues and the new owners decided to get out, according to Shafer. The small community of renters jumped into action. They made an offer on the land, then everyone put in their share to make the purchase.

“Ninety percent ponied up, and the rest sold and got out,” he explained, going on to say they enlisted the expertise of Cleveland-based lawyers. “I wouldn’t say it was smooth, but it was attainable, mainly because no one wanted to lose their paradise, so it was a kind of panic situation.”

After that, Belke’s became Dock of the Bay, LLC.

Attorney Janice Scotton, of Kaman & Cusimano, said the Dock of the Bay cooperative operates as a non-profit corporation, which is governed under a special set of state regulations.

“Our firm helps owners figure out how to govern the association and how to administer the property and understand their duties,” she said. “We come in after the fact. All the way from drafting governing documents to attending owner meetings and helping come to the board and get it up and running.”

Scotton said the formation of collective ownership situations is particularly common in vacation areas with marina settings and that her firm’s role in education and communication is intended to avoid litigation.

But having attorneys put together a deal doesn’t happen overnight and may not work. Johnson said buyers with funds already in the bank always have the advantage.

“Cash is usually king no matter what you’re doing,” she said. “Whatever you’re buying, a car or whatever, yes. They don’t want to wait, they want to know for sure their property is sold so they can buy something else.”

Campers at Rocky Point spend the season making themselves at home. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)

Making their own little paradise

John Seifert and his wife were long-time visitors to the area, having spent plenty of time in a seasonal park relaxing and enjoying Lake Erie. They went looking for property to buy in 2017.

“We wanted to move up here to the lake, and this piece of property has a house on it,” he said. “So our plan was to build the park and get everything up and running and strong and then move up here full-time, and that’s what we did.”

According to Seifert, Rocky Point RV Park and Marina came into existence over winter 2017-2018 specifically to avoid conflict with neighbors, many of whom are snowbirds, heading south over the winter. The acreage, at the east end of East Harbor, was already zoned for such a park, he said, so the permit process was fairly straightforward.

“I didn’t really have to change zoning, I just had to change the locals’ minds right here and I didn’t really accomplish that until it was all said and done and built,” he said. “They’re a pretty happy bunch of folks I have in here right now, and I don’t have any problems. They’re all seasonal so they stay here the whole summer.”

Seifert said he takes satisfaction knowing Rocky Point offers lake access to so many families and their friends each year.

“These people became like family up here. We fish together, we ride jet skis together and party together,” he said.

John and Nanc Seifert opened Rocky Point in 2018 so others could enjoy the lake life on a budget. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)

Harbor Haven stays in the family

For years Cleveland-area residents Chuck and Elaine Steinbrick loved camping at East Harbor State Park. They nearly purchased a couple lots on nearby Johnson’s Island in the 1960s, but instead decided on about 10 acres on East Harbor. They started out with five cottages and a small convenience store. The couple slowly constructed a trailer park (Chuck was a heavy equipment operator) and from there, Harbor Haven was born. It was there they raised their family.

Brothers Adam and Willie Steinbrick both still live nearby and have operated the park and marina since their parents died. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s been a paradise for hundreds of families over the years, with some folks owning trailers on rented lots there for more than five decades.

The Steinbricks get unsolicited purchase offers all the time on the phone and in the mail, but Adam said they never even nibble.

“It’s really not part of the equation,” he said. “I guess everything has a price, but Mom and Dad started this and it’s been passed on. So we feel we have an obligation. And you know, you can’t put a price on happiness. We’re happy with where we’re at and the people we have here.”

Adam Steinbrick described Harbor Haven as a place for the common man, going on to say a month’s rent is what someone could expect to pay for a couple nights’ hotel lodging during the summer season. In addition, he said, they work hard to keep a family atmosphere in the park with month-to-month leases – a needed tool to maintain drama-free enjoyment of Lake Erie.

“If you get a bad egg and you have to deal with it, you have an opportunity to do that,” he said. “If someone isn’t happy probably the people around them aren’t happy, and if that’s the case we don’t want someone to be there and they can leave.”

Steinbrick said he hopes Harbor Haven stays in the family for a long time.

“It makes me feel good that so many people have been here for so long – and many have passed their trailers from generation to generation,” he explained. “It must mean my parents did something right.”

The brothers are even doubling down on the old-school park. In the past two years they’ve razed old buildings and turned what was once a pasture for their childhood horses – and most recently a large pole barn and storage area for boats – into a new site for recreational campers. The construction process is ongoing and the new section is expected to be open soon.

But Harbor Haven’s new neighbors are not thrilled.

New homes rise at Regatta. A trailer which was the subject of concern by new neighbors is in the foreground. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)

A fence marks a much deeper conflict between neighbors

Bordering Harbor Haven to the west for years was a field with an intermittent tree line along East Harbor, hosting a local farmer who leased the property to grow squash each season. It was a picturesque scene for those driving to the Marblehead Lighthouse.

That arrangement ended when a developer purchased the property several years ago, installing a cul-de-sac and utilities for 14 homes, each situated on about a quarter-acre, collectively called Regatta.

Lots near the water sold for about $65,000, developer Jeff Rospert said. But lots on the shoreline sold for between $200,000 and $250,000. According to Trulia.com, one waterfront lot listed in April 2020 at $189,000 went through three price hikes, selling nine months later for about $235,000.

“There’s probably two or three where it will be their full-time home, but I think most are very near retirement and are looking for a nice set-up on the waterfront with a dock,” Rospert said.

More than half the sites currently have homes completed or under construction that are selling in the $500,000-plus range.

Some Regatta residents have already complained about Harbor Haven and its new campground. During a Danbury Township Zoning Board hearing in February 2021, Donna Stock, who built a home in the Regatta development, expressed concern, according to meeting minutes, that she “had no idea anything like this would or could go up” and was “disappointed.”

At a March 2021 meeting, Donna’s husband David inquired whether something would be done about a Harbor Haven trailer on a jetty which he considered unsightly and which Rospert worried would bring down property values.

According to meeting minutes, Christine Tylicki, who purchased a Regatta lot, was also concerned about campers and “what happens if these campers don’t want to pay for a shed” to store their things. She also was concerned about traffic and how “due to the nature of camping and the RVs, everyone wants to come up and just hang out at the lake.”

During the township zoning process, Harbor Haven was granted several variances for the new RV park. To get the variances, the Steinbricks worked to accommodate concerns of neighbors, subsequently revising original plans.

A fence erected by Regatta, separating the development from Harbor Haven, has partially fallen at least a half dozen times in the last two years during strong west winds.

Steinbrick said Harbor Haven will be erecting their own fence soon.

“Yeah, ours will have concrete,” he said.

And while some Regatta owners had misgivings about Harbor Haven and the campground development, at least one, Jeff Myers, seemed to come around after zoning issues were resolved and plans approved. He intends to build a home directly on the water and was the only Regatta owner to respond to interview requests.

“Yeah, pretty much this is our retirement property, to have the water access and you have your boat nearby and all that. Fishing and pleasure boating,” Myers explained, going on to say he and his wife were specifically looking for something directly on the water.

He said the RV park issue didn’t really come up until after they’d closed on the property.

“I imagine a lot of it is I’d say an eyesore that could be cleaned up,” he said of the trailer on the jetty. “But yeah, I would hope they could have a cool, happy medium to make it good for everybody. With the lake access and whatnot, I understand peoples’ reasoning.”


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Lakeside Gentrification: Waterfront properties and water access grow steadily further out of reach

Family-owned fishing businesses displaced by waterfront developments on Great Lakes


Featured image: On the left sits the future site of a small seasonal campground at Harbor Haven. On the right, new homes at Regatta on East Harbor.(Photo Credit: James Proffitt)

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