Storm damage at Soquel mobile home park unearths decades-old county plan to remove it from flood plain

Alex Ortiz in his flooded Soquel mobile home
Alexis Ortiz surveys the damage at his Soquel mobile home, which was red-tagged after being flooded on New Year’s Eve.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County was so worried about damaging floods harming the Old Mill Estates mobile home park that a 1990 master plan called for the government to buy the property and turn it into a flood buffer for Soquel Village. Why didn’t that happen?

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Alongside his mother, aunt, brother and neighbors, Alexis Ortiz lifted shovelful after shovelful of muck from his driveway. It was a gray mid-January afternoon and the first day of real respite from the series of destructive atmospheric rivers that swept through the region earlier in the month.

Twenty-nine years old with short black hair, a stocky build and a countenance softened by exhaustion, Ortiz moved slowly as he stepped away from his muddy driveway and into his muddy living room, brushing past the red notice from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office declaring the structure unsafe to inhabit.

The bleak scene inside offered few clues that anyone ever called this rental unit, inside the Old Mill Estates mobile home park in Soquel, home. Mud coated the floors, stained the walls and marked the furniture. Brown water pooled in the corner of the first of three bedrooms. The air was thick on the inhale and smelled almost sweet, warning all who entered not to stay too long.

“We lived here for 14 years,” Ortiz said. “This happened in seconds.”

The Ortizes' backyard following the pair of floods that hit Old Mill Estates mobile home park in January.
The Ortizes’ backyard following the pair of floods that hit Old Mill Estates mobile home park in January.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Overall, the storms displaced seven residents of the mobile home park, totaled 21 cars and left in their wake a trail of mud, paperwork and tens of thousands of dollars in damages for some of the county’s most vulnerable residents. In the onslaught of an unprecedented series of atmospheric rivers, the Old Mill Estates and its residents served as the permeable front line against a flood that would quickly reach the rest of the notoriously low-lying Soquel Village.

The floodwaters surprised most residents. But despite the lack of warning from the sheriff’s office on New Year’s Eve — a failing under review by local officials — the county government knew this type of damaging flood would come for the mobile home park, because it already had several times before.

Officials were so worried about future floods that, more than 30 years ago, the county and Soquel Village residents approved a plan that called for Old Mill’s removal, with an aim to eventually transform the creekside property into a park and flood buffer for the rest of the village.

Although some flood mitigation pieces of that 1990 Soquel Village Plan were accomplished, the county never moved on the task to buy Old Mill and relocate its residents. People who worked on the plan at the time blamed complications with financing and logistics around the purchase and, in part, a state decision to shut down the local agency tasked with carrying out the plan.

Now, the atmospheric rivers and new availability of federal dollars has revived interest in this decades-old plan for Old Mill. This latest natural disaster has caused significant financial stress for the new owner of the park, though it’s unclear if it’s enough to seek a sale. Whether the county can get the money and whether the residents want to leave one of the last bastions of affordable housing in an increasingly expensive corner of the country remain pressing questions.

Flooded history

In the six major floods to hit Soquel Village since 1931, significant damage came for the area occupied by Old Mill mobile home park, which sits along the west bank of Soquel Creek, near the corner of Porter Street and Soquel Drive.

A drone view of Old Mill Mobile Home Park showing its proximity to Soquel Creek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

U.S. Department of Agriculture ecologist Stephen Singer emphasized this in his report on Soquel Village’s vulnerability following the previous flood, in 1982. Eyewitnesses Singer cited from that 1982 flood reported that between noon and 1 p.m., Soquel Creek breached its banks, and by 3 p.m. Old Mill was “completely flooded,” followed by downtown Soquel.

Residents who were evacuated in 1982 told of the surprise when the floodwaters arrived, as they were given little to no warning.

“I was laying on my bed watching television,” Herbert Blum, a resident at the smaller, neighboring Heart of Soquel Mobile Home Park, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “I had looked out earlier and it didn’t look that bad. Then, water just started coming in under the door.”

On New Year’s Eve nearly 41 years later, mobile home park residents were again mystified by the sudden nature of the flood and lack of warning. The Ortiz family had lamb on the stove and decorations hanging in the community hall next door, preparing to celebrate the arrival of 2023, when their kitchen suddenly began to take on brown, murky water.

Soquel Creek had breached the bank behind their house, and was now pushing water into the living room, bedrooms and the community hall. Afforded only a split second of shock, the family ditched the meal and sprang to pack their cars with everything they could salvage. By the time they left their driveway, their street was under nearly 5 feet of water.

Old Mill resident Roberto Sanchez points out mold that destroyed his belongings following the New Year's Eve flood.
Old Mill resident Roberto Sanchez points out mold that destroyed his belongings following the New Year’s Eve flood.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Several doors down, 35-year resident Glen Larson filmed the rushing creek on his phone with intrigue. But when the rising river ripped down a series of trees and swallowed the retaining wall between his backyard and the creek, Larson decided on his own to seek shelter elsewhere.

Perhaps the only person prepared at Old Mill was Terry Lee Lewis, who nervously watched the publicly viewable U.S. Geological Survey’s flood gauge for Soquel Creek as the rain came down and noticed a rapid and concerning rise. She told her cousin, county employee Debbie Windisch, they needed to leave.

“Terry left, but I told her I was going to stay because we had not received any word from the county yet about flooding or flood warnings,” Windisch said. “Terry is always little Miss Panicky, but this time she was right. By the time I left an hour and a half later, there was 4 feet of water in the street.”

Despite the lack of warning, reports following the 1982 storm say this was to be expected.

“Today, the Old Mill mobile home park is located in the same vulnerable location, with mobile homes extending to the brink of the stream,” Singer wrote in 1983. His report, which according to the Sentinel was met with praise at the time, pointed out that over the years, the mobile home park had made itself even more vulnerable by expanding its footprint closer to Soquel Creek.

A solution gets shelved

Santa Cruz County supervisors and planning officials knew this in 1990 when they passed the Soquel Village Plan. That master plan for the community, developed over months of community engagement and analysis, held flood mitigation as its No. 1 objective. Top of the short-term tasks list? Develop a relocation plan and begin negotiations to purchase Old Mill. The plan was to eventually transform the property into part of a linear park that would act as a flood buffer for the rest of the village, so long as funding was available.

Terry is always little Miss Panicky, but this time she was right. By the time I left an hour and a half later, there was 4 feet of water in the street.

— Debbie Windisch, on her cousin and Old Mill resident Terry Lee Lewis

Tom Burns headed the county’s redevelopment agency, the government arm tasked with implementing the plan, at the time. Burns, now retired, said local master plans were largely “aspirational — as in, if all was perfect, here’s what we would do.” Yet the agency, financed by local tax dollars, carried out roughly $100 million worth of master plan objectives for Soquel Village and Live Oak. This included a replacement of the Soquel Drive bridge to make it less susceptible to logjams — which exacerbate the rise of floodwaters — and a purchase of the village’s smaller flood-prone Heart of Soquel Mobile Home Park, turning it into a pocket park of the same name.

Old Mill, however, was left alone.

Burns said the mobile home park presents a complicated and expensive problem. In the case of the Heart of Soquel Mobile Home Park, there was a single owner from whom all residents leased their homes. Old Mill boasts 41 homes — two rental units (one which the Ortizes called home) and 39 lots where residents own their home structures but lease the land underneath. Buying Old Mill would have meant finding an affordable place for residents to relocate to and paying those relocation costs. He called it “night and day” in terms of logistical complexity.

Local redevelopment agencies also played a key role in affordable housing development. Financed by skimming local property tax revenue away from school districts and other public institutions, the agencies would often buy property and then flip it to affordable housing developers at a discount, incentivizing them to build, according to Burns. The state would reimburse school districts for the property tax revenue they lost to redevelopment agencies. However, Gov. Jerry Brown decided that was a financial liability, and shut down local redevelopment agencies in 2012.

Many in housing circles have cited that decision as altering California’s ability to facilitate affordable housing construction by cutting off a dedicated funding source. Despite no movement on the purchase of Old Mill during the redevelopment agency’s run, the agency might have offered the best available route for not only purchasing the mobile home park, but also creating an affordable place to relocate residents.

“The [Soquel Village] master plan was implemented based on opportunities,” Burns said. “Sometimes there is just not the money, or the land, to do the dreamy projects. If the redevelopment agency had been around for another 20 years, maybe more of the plan would have been implemented.”

The entrance at Old Mill Estates mobile home park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Steve Matarazzo, a former county planner who helped develop the Soquel Village Plan, said that although village plans “happen slowly,” they do happen.

“I think, eventually, the goals of the plan will happen,” said Matarazzo, now chief of planning with engineering firm 4Leaf Inc. “Old Mill, it’s not that big, so I think there is a good chance it will be relocated eventually.”

Burns doesn’t see it as impossible. He maintains that amid the ashes of the redevelopment agency, the master plan remains a live wire and can still be implemented if the right funding and opportunities arise. President Joe Biden’s major disaster declaration unlocks a well of federal funding for recovery. That includes money for hazard mitigation projects, which are expensive proposals to preempt future disaster damage by mitigating hazards now. It is how the Felton Grove community in the Santa Cruz Mountains financed lifting the living areas of nearly all homes above the flood plain.

“Let’s say, after this flood, there was major damage at Old Mill and there was this question at the county level of, ‘What do we do?’ People should pull out the Soquel Village Plan and say, ‘Well, there is already a vision of what to do about this,’” Burns said. “I think for the county, post-disaster, this should be one of the things on the list when it comes to hazard mitigation projects.”

Resolution redux

Whether Old Mill is even available for the county to purchase following the storm is unclear; however, a friction brewing between the owner and residents could move that needle.

Commercial real estate investor Biggs Asset Property Management purchased the property in September 2021 from an owner who had run the park since 1999. California-based Biggs, which manages $120 million in property assets, including four other mobile home parks, quickly changed the name from Old Mill Mobile Home Park to the Old Mill Estates. Residents say their grievances with the new owners predate the storms, but the floods have exacerbated them.

Paulette Carney outside her home in Old Mill Estates mobile home park.
Paulette Carney outside her home in Old Mill Estates mobile home park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Following the second flood that hit Old Mill on Jan. 9, the firm sent a letter vaguely outlining the need for an expensive project to mitigate against possible future flood damage. The park, already operating at a loss, was falling deeper into the red after the storm. The firm told tenants it was possible they would need to help pay for that project through a rent increase, and guessed the residents’ share could reach $250,000.

The pushback from the residents was immediate. Biggs began communicating through an attorney. Tenants formed a formal residents association and hired San Diego-based David Semelsberger, an experienced mobile home park attorney.

Paulette Carney, a seven-year resident of the park who’s led the organizing efforts, said a class action lawsuit against Biggs for owner neglect (regarding issues both pre- and post-storm) could be coming.

“We’re not seeking monetary damages,” Carney said. “Our demands are simple: Fix the problems and sell us the park.”

Old Mill is one of 84 mobile home parks in Santa Cruz County, which accommodate more than 5,800 homes. Carney found Old Mill while searching for a place to live following a divorce she described as “friendly.”

She wanted to stay in the tight-knit and sunny community of Soquel, and a new manufactured home inside the mobile home park was half the price of nearby condos. She knew the park was in a flood plain because the mortgage lender required insurance. However, she said more research would have changed her decision to buy inside Old Mill.

District 1 County Supervisor Manu Koenig represents the residents of Old Mill Estates mobile home park.
District 1 County Supervisor Manu Koenig represents the residents of Old Mill Estates mobile home park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“If I had done my research and looked at the flooding history, there is no way I would have purchased my home on the creek,” Carney said. “No way. It’s got much history.”

Biggs Asset Property Management has not said whether it is considering a sale of the mobile home park. In an emailed statement, the firm’s attorney, Andrew Ditlevsen of San Jose-based Hopkins Carley, said “challenges and obstacles remain, for both community residents and Old Mill ownership.”

However, should the park become available simultaneously with the unlocking of Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard mitigation funds following the disaster, the county could become a bidder.

“I know I am definitely talking about it,” said 1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig when asked whether fulfilling the Soquel Village Plan’s objectives and removing Old Mill is a serious consideration. “It would require a lot of coordination between the county, property owners, and affordable housing developers [for relocation of residents]. I’ve been getting this question a lot about hazard mitigation funds. It would obviously have to pencil out and make sense for FEMA to expend those funds.”

Koenig said the state decision to shut down the redevelopment agencies has made financing such purchases difficult. So buying Old Mill will, in part, come down to the availability of federal dollars. In the event of a purchase, Koenig emphasized that the county would not force anyone out of Old Mill, but rely on the natural turnover of the park.

It’s too early to say how residents would feel about the county stepping in, but ultimately, Carney said it would depend on the county’s plan for Old Mill residents.

“If they could find a spot to put all our homes in the county, we might be OK with it,” Carney said. “I get it from a standpoint of being safe — I wouldn’t want to own a house on the creek.”