When residents of the Circle J Mobile Home Court, a 25-unit trailer park just north of Old Highway 200 between East Missoula and Milltown, received notice from their landlord in April that they could no longer water their lawns or gardens until further notice, it struck them as more than a bit odd. After all, Missoula County had issued no watering restrictions for their area, fire experts were already expressing concern about dryer-than-average weather conditions, and all their neighbors were still watering as usual.
As the hot, dry weather persisted into the summer, the court’s residents—a mixture of college students, working-class families and retirees—watched as their previously well-tended lawns turned brown and died, their flowers wilted and their trees and shrubs turned into fire hazards. One resident, determined not to allow the fruits of his labor to wither under the scorching sun, hauled in water every day in 55-gallon drums in a pickup truck. Even as the Missoula Fire Department was advising homeowners to keep their vegetation green, the landlord did not lift the watering ban, going so far as to send residents a letter advising them how to shower and brush their teeth.
The watering issue was particularly irksome to Linda and Larry Hintz, who have lived in Circle J for 21 years and managed it for the last six. They knew how much time, effort and money their fellow residents had put into beautifying the court. Linda, a certified water operator, also knew that the property’s two wells were not at risk of running dry. When Hintz expressed this view to the court’s owner, Lois Tillotson of Missoula, Tillotson refused to relent. So Hintz and her husband resigned as managers rather than enforcing the ban—and without statement of cause were served in July with a 90-day eviction notice.
At this point, the other residents in the court decided that they’d had enough. They approached Montana People’s Action, who helped them form a new homeowners association, the Circle J MPA, which has since signed up 24 of the court’s 25 residents as members. (Under Montana law, the 25th resident, the new property manager, is ineligible for membership in a tenants association.)
“They [the Hintzes] did a good job managing this place,” says Circle J resident Glen Gabel, who first approached MPA and is now chairman of its newest chapter. “As soon as I saw that eviction letter I said, ‘This has got to stop.’”
As residents began comparing notes, it became apparent that the watering issue was only the tip of the iceberg. Soon, stories began surfacing from other residents who had received harassing letters and phone calls from Tillotson, as well as threats of eviction and rules applied arbitrarily to some residents and not others.
In July, Gabel phoned Tillotson about some new tenants shooting off fireworks in the court. “All I did was call about some fireworks,” says Gabel. “It was the only complaint I ever made in 12 years.” A few days later he received a two-page letter from Tillotson berating him for stirring up trouble and spreading rumors.
“As of late, there has been far too much gossip, back-stabbing, tattling, just plain troublemaking going on in the court,” Tillotson wrote in a July 11 letter to Gabel. “It is going to stop. If I have to come out there and track down every stupid, nasty remark that is made and take appropriate action, believe me I’ll do it, starting right now.”
MPA has since invited Tillotson to two meetings with residents in an effort to resolve their differences. In a letter to Gabel, Tillotson claimed medical reasons prevented her from attending the first meeting on Sept. 16. She refused to attend a second meeting, Hintz says, if either Hintz, Gabel or representatives from MPA were present.
Someone who did attend the Sept. 16 meeting, however, was Missoula attorney and candidate for Montana Senate, Andrew Scott. Scott reviewed the Circle J lease and discovered a number of discrepancies with Montana law. One provision grants the landlord the right to inspect a unit prior to its sale, which he says is illegal. Another allows her to evict tenants without cause provided she gives 90-days notice. This provision violates Montana’s “Good Cause” law, which spells out the reasons for which a person can be evicted from a mobile home park (MPA was instrumental in the passage of that legislation in 1993).
“Trailer park owners are allowed to set reasonable rules for their parks, and [Tillotson] has tried to do that,” says Scott. “However, some of these things, it’s more like the tenants are her little serfs in her kingdom.”
It should be noted that a July 25 inspection by the Missoula Health Department confirmed that the wells were in good condition. The inspector saw no reason for limiting water usage, determined that it is “highly unlikely” that they would be drawn down to dangerously low levels and advised that in light of aesthetics and the fire danger, Tillotson should allow residents to water their lawns. By Aug. 10, the ban had been loosened. The 90-day eviction of the Hintzes still stands, however, though both Linda and Larry Hintz continue to pay rent and say they won’t leave.
Tillotson was reached by phone by the Independent, but refused to comment.