A $510 million trailer park cashes out

The last people to strike it rich in the real estate boom may be residents of a Florida trailer park. Fortune's Stephen Gandel reports.

By Stephen Gandel, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- There are a lot of homeowners in Florida who are looking to sell and can't get their asking price. The real estate boom they counted on to make them rich has passed them by. This story is not about them.

For the past few weeks, the 411 people who live at Briny Breezes, a 43-acre trailer park on the Atlantic about 60 miles north of Miami, have been facing the exact opposite situation.

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Early risers at Florida's Briny Breezes greet the dawn.
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Tom Byrne (pictured) voted against selling his home.
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Jack and Bernadine Taylor (at table), with family, voted yes, but reluctantly.

In December a developer offered them much more than any of them paid - and much more than any of them ever expected to get - for their homes. On Jan. 10, a majority of residents voted to accept. Few of them, though, seem very happy about it.

The developer, Ocean Land Investments (OLI), bid $510 million. That means the owners of Briny Breezes's 488 mobile homes (many of which could have been bought for less than $100,000 a few years ago) are now millionaires on paper.

OLI hopes to turn the community into a condo and hotel development. "It's a really unique piece of land," says Logan Pierson, head of acquisitions for OLI.

And it is. On a barrier island, Briny is sandwiched between million-dollar homes to the north and south and is the last significant piece of beachfront property in the area without mansions or a luxury high rise. For the past half-century it has been a co-op owned by middle-class residents, many of them retirees and snowbirds from up north.

Debbi Murray, the director of archives at the Palm Beach Historical Society, says she believes the chief legacy of the recent real estate boom will be the end of affordable housing. "We've priced the average person out of the market," says Murray. "Briny was the last affordable community on the beach." OLI says condo units in the development replacing Briny will start at $3 million.

Reluctant millionaires

One of the new Briny millionaires is Tom Byrne. A former insurance sales manager, Byrne, 68, retired to Briny from Long Island eight years ago with his wife, Maureen. Now widowed, he stands to get $1 million in the sale, or about seven times what he paid for the home he bought here two years ago. But Byrne, whose salt-and-pepper beard and barrel chest make him a sure winner in any Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, opposes the sale. He spent the weeks leading up to the Jan. 10 vote handing out buttons that read SAVE BRINY. "My wife died here, and my sister's ashes were spread on this beach," says Byrne. "I want to die here too."

Bill and Cora Lou Miller are just as sure about wanting to sell. "We've been here for 25 years," says Cora Lou, 72. "We've made a lot of friends." But after three hurricanes in three years, the Millers, who will be paid $1.6 million for their property, want out. Three years ago their insurance company canceled the property coverage on their vintage 1969 trailer. "Only about half of our good friends here want to sell," says Bill, 82. "But for us, it is not worth it to stay." Cora Lou, though, says, "We were for the sale, but now that it has actually happened, it is sad. There will be people I will never see again."

Briny got its start in the 1930s as a destination for "tin can" tourists, who towed their Airstreams from as far away as Canada for extended winter vacations. But it long ago lost its tin-can image. Separated by small yards, many of the trailers are the size of modest homes.

Bernadine Taylor, 76, says, "We call our place an 'ocean villa.'" The "villa" she shares with her husband, Jack, 74, has 1,600 square feet, with three bedrooms, two baths and a laundry room. There are hardwood floors and a kitchen island with stainless-steel appliances. Three double-wide windows in the living room let in sweeping views of the ocean. Their neighbor has a grand piano and a fireplace.

Over the years, Briny Breezes also developed a sense of community, which fractured in the weeks before the vote. Residents say they'd been approached by developers before, but none of those offers was considered seriously. When OLI came along, things were different.

Thomas and Tooti Goudreau had the screens on their trailer slashed and their car scratched with keys after telling a local TV station they were against the deal.

Barbara Quilling, who supports the sale, stopped joining her friend Mikey Rulli at happy hour as much as she used to. Rulli, 60, says she didn't want to sell for any amount of money. "A lot of people are turning their back on Briny for a buck," she says. The two women used to be inseparable, bowling together and planning Briny's monthly cabaret parties. They are still friends, but they have learned to avoid the topic of the sale. "There have been a lot of shouting matches," says Rulli.

Jack and Bernadine Taylor will get about $4.4 million for their four Briny properties, for which they paid a total of $300,000. They voted for the sale, but after the vote, Jack reported, "My wife has been crying. She is not very happy at the moment."

The deal doesn't close for two years, and OLI still has to gain various government approvals. That gives some slight hope to residents who voted no, like Bonnie Labreque, 63. She says, "It's not over until I see the check. Property values are plummeting around here. So maybe the developer will pull out. That's my hope."

At five on many evenings, Tom Byrne heads to the beach. From his double-wide trailer, the ocean is a short golf-cart ride past Briny Breezes' office, across Florida's coastal A1A road, and down a row of trailers. From door to surf takes about five minutes. On a recent night he took his casting rod from the cart's roof and walked out on a jetty. On winter evenings, as Byrne fishes, the sun sets on 75-degree breezes and the crash and hiss of breaking waves. "I wouldn't trade this for a million dollars," says Byrne. He may have to.

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