WOODLAND — An ongoing ownership dispute at the Lewis River RV Park appeared no closer to a resolution on Wednesday, and a group of park residents have begun laying the groundwork to take legal action to try to resolve a situation that has left them in the dark — figuratively and potentially literally — for the past two weeks.
The most immediate concern is electricity. For the third week in a row, the park faces a Thursday morning cutoff date for its power service. The park’s water is supplied from a well with an electrically driven pump, so a power shutoff also means a water shutoff.
The previous two shutoffs have been avoided through last-minute weeklong extension deals, but as of press time Wednesday, no new deal had emerged.
The situation arose earlier this month when the park’s former landowner, John Berman, informed residents that ownership of the park land was about to transfer back to Jerry Reeves, who had owned the land prior to Berman.
After the switch, Reeves refused to set up an account with the Cowlitz Public Utility District. He argued that the park residents were still Berman’s tenants through an LLC that Berman had created to manage the park, and it would be Berman’s responsibility to maintain the utilities.
Berman countered that his LLC could no longer operate on land he didn’t own, and it would be up to Reeves to re-establish a management structure for the park, including a new utility account.
That stalemate has persisted for the past two weeks, with the power kept on in the meantime through consecutive one-week extension deals between Reeves and Cowlitz PUD and services paid for by donations from the community.
In the meantime, the park’s residents began working with representatives from the Northwest Justice Project to assert their rights as tenants. The residents have formed a homeowners association and have vowed to take legal action against Reeves if the power shuts down Thursday.
Still, the situation has been fraught for the residents, many of whom are low-income tenants who moved into the Lewis River park because it was more affordable than other options. The park had an estimated 75 RVs when the dispute began two weeks ago.
“Some people moved out (during the past two weeks), but a lot of people, they don’t have the means to move out,” park resident Caitlyn Mayfield said Wednesday afternoon. “We don’t know if the power is going to be on or off — we have no idea.”
The changing ownership is tied into an ongoing legal case between Reeves and Berman, with Berman representing the estate of Gail Reeves, Jerry Reeves’ late ex-wife.
Gail Reeves had a $7 million judgment against Jerry Reeves stemming from their divorce, and she created the Gail A. Reeves Trust and transferred the judgment to it before she died, designating Berman as the assigned trustee who could take action to collect the remainder of the judgment.
Jerry Reeves had uninterrupted ownership of the park for at least a decade leading up to 2017. Berman initially took ownership of the park in 2017 by filing a writ of execution to have it sold at auction and then bidding for it using money Reeves still owed to the trust.
The sale included a one-year “redemption” period in which Reeves could reclaim ownership of the park by paying the sale price to the trust. He did so in 2018, but Berman then filed a second writ of execution and repeated the process, again bidding money that Reeves still owed to the trust.
Reeves again recovered the park at the tail end of the one-year redemption period, setting up the ownership transfer from Berman back to Reeves earlier this month. But Reeves said the various licenses for his management company — such as the liquor license for the RV park’s general store — all expired during the intervening year, forcing him to start from scratch after reacquiring the park.
In his initial communication with residents in the past two weeks, Reeves maintained that Berman would still need to handle administration of the park. But he appeared to change that approach this week.
On Tuesday, new signs appeared in the windows of the park’s general store — which had been shuttered since Berman’s departure — declaring that the store would soon reopen.
Multiple residents also reported that application forms had been taped to their RV doors — apparently applications for new residential leases under Jerry Reeves’ management company. The packets also included a number of what the residents characterized as new restrictions on the vehicles and structures permitted on each RV site.
Residents who spoke to The Columbian expressed surprise and frustration at the new applications, which reportedly included a $40-per-person application fee and a $600 deposit.
“If he’s still refusing to turn the utilities on and wants to collect money from us, that doesn’t make sense,” said park resident Valerie Gardner.
Reeves said he is in the process of reacquiring all the necessary licenses to manage the park, and the list of rules that was sent to residents was intended to bring the park into compliance with county codes — a prerequisite for the license renewal.
“We’ve essentially got to start all over again,” he said. “It’s kind of a refresh. But how else do we do it?”
Reeves asked residents to gather at the RV park store on Wednesday afternoon for a meeting to provide more information about the management changes. In a somewhat heated exchange, Reeves met with about 20 residents and discussed their respective concerns.
There did not appear to be a clear resolution to the power issue, but both sides appeared to calm down as the meeting progressed and there appeared to be a willingness to keep discussing the issues.
The next step for the residents will depend on whether the power does indeed go out this morning.
Lisa Waldvogel, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, said last week that under Washington law, any new owner of an RV park inherits the responsibilities of the prior owner including maintaining the utilities.
She reiterated this week that the park’s homeowners association would immediately file suit Thursday if the power goes out.
“Right now, all of our energies are focused on ensuring that the electricity doesn’t get interrupted,” she said.
Once the power situation is dealt with — or if another deal is reached to keep it on temporarily — Waldvogel said the residents would then turn their attention to the new lease and deposit fee demands, which she also characterized as an unlawful change to the existing management structure and potentially grounds for a separate legal complaint.
“That would just be a back door way of getting someone removed from the park,” she said.
The other parties are making moves of their own. At the meeting Wednesday, Reeves told tenants that he was preparing to take legal action against Berman, and Berman recently filed another writ of execution to auction off the park for a third time.
He told The Columbian last week that he would continue buying the park until he had recovered all of the money owed from the divorce judgment, and since Reeves bought the park back twice already, he expected he would do it again.
“I think the probability of us owning this thing after a year is probably zero,” Berman said.