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Seminole Tribe forcing mobile home residents to leave

Home since 1972 has been a double-wide mobile home with wood paneled interior walls, a simple but elegant living room, and a screened front porch from where Olga Torregrossa has watched her 55-and-older deed restricted community grow alongside the Seminole Tribe’s casinos near Hollywood.

Just as the Seminole Mobile Home Estates grew from a small trailer park to one of the biggest in Broward — with more than 700 units, and about 1,500 non-tribal residents — the tribe’s casinos to the north exploded from a modest bingo hall in 1979 to the lavish, Las Vegas-style Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino that debuted in 2004.

But that symbiotic and sometimes contentious relationship will come to an end in summer 2013. The Seminoles have announced plans to close the park after buying out the management company that held a lease to run it through March 2024.

In case residents doubted the tribe’s intentions, the Seminoles erected a chain-link fence around the community center, swimming pool, bowling alley, exercise room and other common areas on the same day the park’s closure was announced.

Only the laundry room and mailbox bank remain open.

Residents, such as Torregrossa, 88, have been asked to leave, preferably by January.

“I have no choice,’’ Torregrossa said as she stacked cardboard boxes for her move. “I feel like I’m leaving everything, all my friends.’’

Like many residents of the park, Torregrossa owns an older unit that may not survive a move. Its walls could buckle, or the roof could cave in.

Nor can all residents afford the estimated $15,000 to $30,000 expense to have a crew pull a mobile home from the ground, tow it to a new park and set it up again.

Torregrossa said she plans to leave by mid-October and move in with a friend and neighbor who will have her mobile home towed to a park in Fort Lauderdale.

The friend’s mobile home is big enough to accommodate Torregrossa, but not the decades worth of belongings she has amassed.

Torregrossa said she plans to take a love seat that opens into a twin-sized bed; an octagonal display case filled with her Hummel figurines collection; and some framed photographs of her late husband, Thomas Torregrossa, who died in 1985.

“At least there will be something there that I feel is mine,’’ she said.

Everything else — the double-wide mobile home; the dining room and living room furniture that she shared with her late husband; the master bedroom set; the odds and ends of her life — will stay behind.

And though she is resigned to move, Torregrossa said she loses sleep mulling unanswered questions: Will she like the new park in Fort Lauderdale? Will she get along with her new roommate, who’s a smoker unlike herself?

Torregrossa said the new park is much smaller than Seminole Mobile Home Estates and does not offer the amenities or the social activities that she enjoys, such as an exercise room and dance nights in the fall. On the other hand, she said, the new park sits on a nice lake.

“I’ll have to make a new life,’’ she said. “Maybe it will be better. Who knows?’’

Still, Torregrossa cannot help but feel betrayed sometimes.

“What a rotten deal we’re getting,’’ she said. “I thought they’d carry me out. I never thought they’d throw us out.’’

Residents were given notice of the park’s closure on Sept. 14, and many allege that park managers knew of the change years ago but neglected to inform residents, including several who bought their homes within the past several years.

Many residents said managers assured them the park would not close until 2024 under a long-term lease with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which holds the land in trust for the Seminoles.

“People’s lives are being destroyed,’’ said Glenn Nitta, 63, who bought his home in 2004. “They allowed people to move in here, fix up their places or even buy new ones, and they knew all along what they were going to do.’’

Nitta said he was quoted a price of $29,000 to move his double-wide mobile home to a park in Coconut Creek.

“This is my home. I own it,’’ he said. “I’m able to move it because all my life I’ve been saving up money. I don’t know what for. I guess this is it. But I’m going to be broke after this. My life savings are gone.’’

The Seminoles have said they are closing the park to build homes for tribal members. The mobile home park takes up about 110 acres of the total 497-acre reservation.

More than 200 tribal families are on a waiting list for housing on the reservation, said tribal spokesman Gary Bitner.

Although residents believed they could live in the mobile home park until 2024, the Seminoles only committed to keeping it open until 2013.

But that commitment was never put in writing for the residents.

“They weren’t told because it wasn’t clear cut,’’ Bitner said. “It’s not a decision that was made until this year.’’

The Seminoles made the commitment to residents shortly after the tribe seized control of the property from the former management company, Hollywood Mobile Home Estates, in summer 2008.

The Seminoles forced that company off the property with no prior notice, and with a strong police presence, citing a litany of alleged lease violations that included desecration of a tribal cemetery.

But Hollywood Mobile Home Estates sued the Seminoles, and a federal judge ordered the tribe in July 2011 to return the park to the former management company. The tribe complied.

The Seminoles then negotiated to buy out Hollywood Mobile Home Estates, Bitner said, and the tribe reassumed management of the park this spring.

“Any discussion about a time frame of closing the park was pretty much speculation until the tribe did have management,’’ he said.

Residents said they don’t begrudge the Seminoles their land, but they are upset about the manner in which the tribe announced the closure and simultaneously erected padlocked fences around the park’s common areas.

Bitner said the tribe wanted to send a clear message.

“It was important to make the case that the park is indeed closing,’’ he said. “It couldn’t continue as business as usual because people need to realize that this is real. This is happening.’’

Gerald Timmons, 69, who bought a home in the park in 2004, said he gets the message.

Now he wants the park’s managers to hear his: “We’ve been cheated,’’ he said.

Timmons produced a prospectus given to him by the park’s previous managers when he moved in. The documents include a copy of the master land lease, between the Seminoles and a group of private companies, which began in March 1969 and extends through March 2024.

Based on that master land lease, Timmons said, he paid $15,000 for his mobile home, which was built in 1971. He invested another $60,000 in improvements, including a covered porch, a car port, new siding, new plywood and sheetrock floors, new windows and a remodeled kitchen and bath.

But the improvements Timmons made to his home, particularly the floors, have made it impossible to move. He said a moving company told him that his mobile home is too heavy and may break if placed on a tractor trailer and hauled away.

As a year-round resident with a fixed income of less than $40,000 a year, Timmons said he qualifies for the Seminoles’ offer of financial assistance of up to $3,000 for abandonment or moving expenses. He said he will sell what he can of his mobile home for scrap parts. But that’s hardly enough to make up for the interruption of his plans.

Timmons, who has esophageal cancer, said he created a comfortable home for the long term. Now he feels like the bottom fell out.

“We had planned on staying in it until we died,’’ he said, “and now it’s being taken from us.’’