Bittersweet resolution of Cook suit
Contrary to the opinions of some residents at Rancho de Sonoma mobile home park, Preston Cook is not an evil man. A real estate opportunist, perhaps, certainly a champion of the bottom-line over the long-term interests of low-income seniors living on shrinking streams of fixed income.
But not evil.
When he began his campaign to convert the mobile-home park - a de facto retirement village of some 100 residents - into an occupant-owned subdivision, Cook structured a deal guaranteeing a continuation of existing low rent levels into the second generation of current residents, along with some $2 million of park improvements once the conversion was approved. Compared to the practices of some mobile home park owners riding the statewide wave of condo conversions, Cook was a veritable saint.
Not withstanding all that, of course, he is overseeing the inevitable, incremental elimination of a vital stock of low-cost housing in Sonoma. Many residents have no second-generation heirs, or none interested in occupying their parents' miniscule mobile homes and, as they die off, current Rancho residents will one-by-one relinquish an affordable space in an affluent community fewer and fewer non-affluent elderly people can afford.
That, some people will explain, is just the way things are.
Ironically, for Cook, another part of the way things are is that the well, from which Rancho de Sonoma extracts its potable water, is contaminated with unhealthy and illegal levels of arsenic. The EPA has been trying to enforce a remedy for more than a couple of years, but Cook has managed to forestall enforcement while first exploring well-head solutions that proved unsuccessful, and then by asking the city to apply for a state grant that would cover the more-than $1 million cost of connecting to city water.
The irony? In 2008, when the city imposed a temporary moratorium on condo conversions while it shaped an ordinance to govern such conversions, Cook filed a $25 million lawsuit for alleged damages. And even though the city approved Cook's conversion, that suit has dragged on through the courts like a mammoth millstone around the city's fiscal throat.
The grant Cook wanted the city to get was denied by the state, but Cook found another pot of state clean-water money and got his own grant. To access the money, however, he needed the city's agreement to "consolidate" the water connection. That gave the city the leverage it needed to force Cook to drop his ill-conceived lawsuit. The quid pro quo was iced at Monday's City Council meeting where Cook's attorney, Sue Loftin, announced her pleasure at being able to "resolve the litigation, which benefits both the city and my clients."
What she didn't add was the cost of the suit in legal fees incurred by the city, roughly estimated by one city staffer at "tens of thousands of dollars."
Why Cook persisted with the suit, unless it was always a bargaining chip, is unclear, but Loftin's law firm specializes in mobile home park conversions and may have unseen strategies.
We're glad it's over but resolution is, at best, bittersweet.