Ellenton's debt-free Terra Siesta seeks wider appeal

mjohnson@bradenton.comMarch 25, 2014 

Homeowners keep their homes and yards tidy in the 539-unit Terra Siesta on 300 acres. Because the co-op has no debt, monthly assessments are low, amounting as little as $114. MATT M. JOHNSON/Bradenton Herald

ELLENTON -- A $10 million mortgage that has been hanging over the heads of hundreds of people living in an Ellenton mobile home park since 1991 will be ceremonially erased from the books this week. When it is, the people of Terra Siesta will both breathe a sigh of relief, and scratch their heads and ask "What's next?"

The 539-unit, 300-acre park along U.S. 301 on the east side of Interstate 75 joins a small group of mobile home parks where residents not only own their land cooperatively, but do so debt-free. That means assessments in the 55-and-older, adult community run as low as $114 monthly, about a quarter of what residents pay at nearby for-profit parks, according to park management.

Neil Schoonejongen, who served as president of the Terra Siesta Cooperative for 14 years, said that when the co-op made its last mortgage payment a few months ago, a whole lot of worry started to drain away. He's happy that he won't have to think about financing or interest rates any time soon.

"We are very adequately funded," Schoonejongen said.

Founded as an RV park in the 1960s, Terra Siesta was long owned by its original developer and, later, a Los Angeles corporation. When the park went up for sale in 1991, the owners of the roughly 265 units there at the time chose to exercise their option to buy. They formed a cooperative, paid about $7.8 million for the park, then paid out another $2 million to buy more land, fix boundary walls and berms and to expand the community's water system.

While cooperative ownership has long been common in Florida mobile home parks, what the people of Terra Siesta did after the purchase was quite un

common. Starting the day they paid the first $35,000 monthly installment on the loan, the co-op raised money and put every dollar it could into buying the loan down.

"They're 100 percent debt free," said Lee Howell, the park's property manager and a local board member with the International Community Associations Institute. "It's a rarity."

Association members will celebrate the payoff with a mortgage-burning party at the community's gathering place, Woods Hall, on Wednesday night. After that, they'll begin figuring out the park's future. Long a seasonal or full-time home for people who raised their families in the 1950s and 1960s, Terra Siesta now exists in a housing landscape that appeals to physically and socially active older adults.

Having just a shuffleboard court and a swimming pool may not cut it anymore. In the coming months and years, newer and younger residents will have the option to vote to add new amenities at Terra Siesta.

"The greatest generation is leaving us," said David Warner, the co-op's current president. "People moving in now have different ideas about what they're looking for."

Terra Siesta has experienced a good deal of turnover in the past few years, with about 25 units changing hands annually. Children of longtime residents are inheriting homes in the park, Schoonejongen said, pushing generational change along even faster.

Relative newcomers to the park are building new social groups. It's common for groups of friends from other states to purchase into an area of the park en masse, Schoonejongen said. Rex Johnson, came from Ohio in 2003 to buy a home in the park with his wife, Barbara, who is now deceased. He said living in Terra Siesta pushes residents to find friends and have fun.

"I have a social life down here," he said. "Up north, it's all work, eat and sleep."

Another newer resident, Bill Hollabaugh, said the park has enough social groups, workout facilities, park spaces, and quiet walking and bicycling roads to keep him busy. He also likes that he gets to vote on issues facing Terra Siesta, since he -- like all other homeowners in the park -- is a shareholder.

"You have some say in governing the park," he said. "Otherwise, you're at the mercy of whoever the owners are."

Being in control of their own destinies does come at a price. Terra Siesta residents pay full market price for their homes, somewhere between $35,000 and the low $100,000 range. For-profit parks, Howell said, often sell homes for less, then make their money on high monthly assessments or rental rates.

The higher price of ownership hasn't seemed to hurt sales. Powell said less than 10 percent of the lots in the park are vacant. While the Terra Siesta co-op has no current plans to expand, he said he "wouldn't put it past" the members to vote to add more lots in the future.

Wednesday's mortgage burning party starts at 6:30 p.m. at Woods Hall on Nancy Lane.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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