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South Florida Sun Sentinel - February 26, 2009

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As Palma Nova mobile home park in Davie closes, it's a ghost town for last residents
Life at the Palma Nova community in Davie winds down in sorrow and squalor

By Susannah Bryan

DAVIE - Vultures circle overhead, searching for prey. On the ground, bulldozers crush home after home, creating a mountain of metal that eventually will make its way to the junkyard.

Six months ago, this was a bustling community, filled with 940 mobile homes and more than 3,000 people. Today, it is more like a ghost town. Fewer than 100 stragglers remain.

On Saturday, the Palma Nova mobile home park, a fixture in east Davie for decades, will close in one of the largest evictions ever in Broward County Click here for restaurant inspection reports.

The notices arrived by mail in August, giving Palma Nova residents six months to leave. Although about 200 angry residents marched to Town Hall, Davie officials told them there wasn't much they could do.

Since then, the community has been in turmoil. Enrollment at nearby Davie Elementary has plummeted to 850 from 1,000. Some mobile homes have burned, neighbors are scavenging through abandoned trailers and dozens of pets have been left behind.

Most residents have already moved to other mobile home parks. Some landed in apartments and homes. Those who remain still are not sure where they will go.

Mobile home parks have been closing throughout the region in recent years to make way for more expensive homes or commercial development. Florida lost 27,769 mobile homes from 1998 to 2008 because of park closures, according to state records. Broward County lost 1,977 mobile homes, Palm Beach County lost 301 and Miami-Dade County lost 2,860.

Painful times

Sonja Borrero, whose 1971 single-wide is too old to move, helped organize the Town Hall protest.

It seems a lifetime ago.

Since then, she has had a heart attack, undergone triple bypass surgery, lost a favorite cat to leukemia and feared for her own life when nearby mobile homes went up in flames. She thinks they were torched by distraught owners or bored kids.

But the most painful blow hit last week, when Jenna, her 22-year-old daughter, died during a seizure.

"I've been crying for three days," Borrero said outside her mobile home, one of the few left on her street. "It's just all this at once. I don't have anywhere to go."

Borrero, 45, had planned to move in with Jenna. Now she is planning her funeral.

Susan Anderson, 62, moved to nearby Everglades Lakes Mobile Home Park soon after getting the eviction notice.

She still comes back now and then to look through the belongings some families have left behind. Last week, she rescued a few parched potted plants.

Joining her was Brenda Ortman, who lives in a duplex next to Palma Nova, formerly Silver Oaks mobile home park.

"It's like going shopping," said Ortman, who has collected lamps, ceiling fans and kitchen cabinets made of oak. "You wouldn't believe the stuff people have left behind."

In transition

Residents forced to leave their mobile homes behind collect what they consider a pittance from the state to help defray the cost of moving: $1,375 for a single-wide and $2,750 for a double-wide. Those who move their mobile homes collect $3,000 to $6,000, depending on the home's size.

In November, Legal Aid Service of Broward County filed a lawsuit accusing the town and park owner Austin Forman of violating state law by not ensuring the residents had other affordable housing options. The lawsuit aims to win more than $15,000 in damages apiece for about 500 families who were living at the park when the suit was filed.

Forman has not said what plans he has for the property, located on the east side of Davie Road across from Broward College. No site plan has been filed with the town.

Forman could not be reached for comment despite three calls to his office and cell phone. Paul Figg, one of Forman's attorneys, declined to comment.

Mayor Tom Truex declined to discuss specifics, but noted the land is zoned for mixed-use development.

Today, the park looks more like a hurricane zone than a parcel destined for future growth.

"It's like any place in transition," Truex said. "A lot of [the homes] have been abandoned."

Hope amid squalor

Jan Dove, who has lived in Palma Nova since 1972, compares it to a war zone.

A baby's shoe sits forgotten in the middle of the street. Abandoned cats search for food. Davie police patrol on bikes and a cruiser sits near the entrance to the park. Not far from the bulldozers are other traces of lives left behind: a sunny-yellow candle, an ocean-blue brush, an oatmeal-colored couch.

In the past few months, Dove, 69, has watched family after family leave the park and their friends behind.

"I've been working and working trying to figure out where to go," said Dove, who owns a bird, dog and cat.

She holds out hope, but her anxiety grows with each day. "It's terrible to be stuck in limbo."

Rosa Fraas, 42, moved in two years ago and lives with her mom, three sons and four chickens. She hopes to move into an apartment in Hallandale Beach by Saturday.

She will find out this week whether the apartment complex has accepted her application.

At 50, Eriberto Roman finds himself in the position of having to move in with his 24-year-old daughter in Pompano Beach.

Roman moved to Palma Nova a year ago after losing his job. His ex-wife took him in, along with Luis, his 6-year-old son from another marriage.

His ex-wife, her pit bull and four chihuahuas are moving in with their 27-year-old son, who has an apartment in Hollywood. "We've helped them enough, so I guess they can help us now," Roman said.

Still, he worries about Luis and how he'll take yet another move. Last year, Luis' mom sent him to live with Roman after she lost her home in Pennsylvania to foreclosure.

Roman is in no hurry to pick up and move out.

"We're waiting for the last day."

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sebryan@SunSentinel.com or 954-385-7929.