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Lewis River RV Park residents caught in middle of dispute over utility services

WOODLAND — Residents of the Lewis River RV Park have received a second extension to their power service, courtesy of another last-minute deal between the park’s owner and the Cowlitz County Public Utility District.

The service cutoff date, previously scheduled for today, has been pushed back to Jan. 30, but the week has brought little other clarity about the long-term future of the park, which is home to approximately 60 families.

An underlying dispute between the park’s current land owner, Jerry Reeves, and its former owner, John Berman, remains unresolved.

Neither party appeared willing to budge on Wednesday afternoon, and each person directly blamed the other in separate interviews. In the meantime, the park’s residents have been left in the lurch, with no clear direction about how long the lights will remain on.

“They should be battling in court, and we (should be) left out of it,” said Valerie Gardner, one of the park’s residents. “It’s left us with, ‘Well, looks like we’d better get generators.’ ”

Cowlitz County officials have gotten involved, as well. Axel Swanson, the county’s chief of staff, said the county has a public interest in working to make sure the park’s power, sewer, water and garbage services remain active during the next few weeks.

The situation arose last week when utility staff notified residents that the RV park was facing a Jan. 16 power cutoff because it had recently changed owners and the new owner, Reeves, had refused to set up an account with the utility district.

Reeves contended that the park’s previous owner and manager, Berman, was the one who had shut off power. Berman replied that he was obligated to terminate service when he ceased to be the park’s owner, and it would be up to Reeves to restart it.

The change in ownership stems from an ongoing legal dispute that began several years ago, and it isn’t the first time the park has changed owners. In fact, in the past three years, the park has twice bounced from Reeves to Berman, then back to Reeves.

According to Cowlitz County District Court records, Reeves’ ex-wife, Gayle Reeves, received a $7 million judgement against him in 2010, stemming from their divorce. Gayle Reeves passed away in 2017, but before she died, she assigned the judgement to the Gail A. Reeves Trust and named Berman, an attorney based in Tigard, Ore., as the assigned trustee.

Representing the trust in court, Berman filed for a writ of execution in 2017 to have the Lewis River RV Park’s underlying land sold at auction. The trust came in as the top bidder, essentially bidding $600,000 of the money Jerry Reeves still owed to the trust to buy the property.

The sale included a one-year period in which Reeves could buy the property back for the same price, which he did in 2018. Berman then filed a second writ of execution in late 2018, repeating the process and this time buying the property for $1.3 million of the money Reeves owed to the trust.

Berman took over the park’s operations in March of 2019 through a management company called Lewis River RV Park LLC, but Reeves again paid the necessary money and recovered the park property in December, setting up the Jan. 14 handover of the property back to Reeves.

Berman filed another writ of execution this week, and when asked on Wednesday if he planned to repeat the process again, he replied that he did, and he said he would keep doing it until the trust had collected all of the money Reeves owed from the original $7 million judgement.

For the moment, however, the park belongs to Reeves, and Berman said that makes it Reeves’ responsibility to maintain the utilities.

Reeves told The Columbian that even though he owns the park land, Berman should still be responsible for reconnecting the power because Berman’s LLC held all the contracts with tenants.

Berman disagreed, and he doesn’t appear to be alone in that assessment. Representatives of the legal aid program Washington Justice Project traveled to the park on Tuesday afternoon to give a presentation about tenant rights for the residents.

The key point, according to Lisa Waldvogel, an attorney with the Justice Project, is that under RCW 59.20 — Washington’s Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act — RV park tenants are entitled to advance notice before a park is shut down, and the park’s owner is obligated to supply utilities as long as the park is active. That obligation is inherited from prior park owners, she said.

“We are prepared to enforce the rights of the residents in court,” she said.

Cowlitz County and utility staff said there are currently no more meetings scheduled before the new Jan. 30 cutoff date, but all the parties said they would continue working to try to find a long-term solution for the park.


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