Backstory: Briny beach memoirs

Residents of a mobile-home park in Florida weigh instant riches versus living the good life.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Robert Kraft used to be a schoolteacher in Detroit. The septuagenarian has been retired now for almost 20 years, but some things you never leave behind. Most days, he will rise before dawn, stroll the few hundred yards to the beach, and watch daylight break over the Atlantic Ocean, giving each sunrise its own grade.

"Some days are an A-plus, others an A or a B," he says. "But it's always beautiful."

It is a ritual that Mr. Kraft might soon have to give up. Developers are hovering over Briny Breezes, a picturesque mobile-home community for seniors just south of Palm Beach on Florida's Atlantic coast. The park is up for sale for half a billion dollars and, like the owners of the other 487 white trailers arrayed in tight but neat rows across the 43-acre site, Kraft and his wife Evelyn are poised to become instant millionaires.

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Truth is, they really don't want to give up their life by the sea, despite what it would mean for their checkbook. The Krafts point up a moral conundrum facing many residents in this tidy trailer park - and many seniors across the booming Sun Belt. As land values rise, particularly in coastal areas, builders are looking for places to put new resorts and tony residential communities. In Florida, mobile-home parks have become popular targets, particularly as hurricanes have forced residents to reassess where they live. A mobile-home community just up the coast from Briny Breezes, for instance, is also considering a buyout.

"It's a tough choice," says Ray Oldenburg, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of West Florida, Pensacola. "They have a pattern of lunches, outings, and activities, and it's traumatic to have to relocate in what should be their settling-down years. But, basically, money talks."

It is true that residents of Briny Breezes could acquire more riches than most have ever known. Even if they don't covet a trip to Salzburg or a Sub-Zero refrigerator in their twilight years, it might help put a niece or nephew through college. Yet many residents, like the Krafts, wonder why anyone would willingly want to give up the laid-back lifestyle, the casual lunches with friends at the beachfront clubhouse, and the many social activities. Or those sienna sunrises.

"It's going to be tough for me to leave because I've been here so long," says Kraft, who first arrived at Briny Breezes in 1938 as an 11-year-old and later inherited the family plot. After retiring in 1987, he upgraded to a double-wide and moved in for good. "My mother died here," he says. "It was a wonderful place to grow up with the beach right on your doorstep, and it's still a wonderful place to be. At this stage of my life, I prefer to stay here."

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Briny Breezes is a modest but well-tended park sandwiched by water - the Atlantic on the east and the Intracoastal Waterway on the west. The site is ringed by palm trees and dissected by a roadway. Fourteen shuffleboard courts, overlooked by a well-stocked library, flank the ocean side. The park has a swimming pool, a hobby club, and an auditorium that doubles as a theater for Briny's amateur thespians. Two World War II-vintage aircraft hangars, floured in sawdust, house the woodworking club.

Briny Breezes started out in the 1930s as a strawberry farm where travelers could hook up trailers. The site was surrounded by cow pastures, pineapple plantations, and tomato farms. The community incorporated itself into a town, with its own mayor and post office, in 1963. Today it has 925 mainly seasonal residents.

Despite all the amenities, most residents, though reluctant, want to cash in on their little patch of paradise. In March, a sizable majority - 78 percent - voted to actively seek a buyer for the site. Shortly thereafter, a Boca Raton investment and development company withdrew a $500 million offer it had made because the residents chose to seek more bids. The company had been planning a hotel and condominium complex on the site.

Some residents clearly cannot wait to spend their windfall, even though it may be years before the first check is drawn. Leisureville, a retirement community two miles inland, has already sold several units to occupants of Briny Breezes, and promotional material from other developments arrive daily in residents' mailboxes now that word of the sale is out.

"It's too soon to be rushing out and spending the money," says Bill Tolford, a retired optometrist. "It'll be two to three years before they kick anyone out of here."

Mr. Tolford, who lives in a modest trailer just one row back from Briny's 600 feet of oceanfront, is as much a fixture in the park as any of the buildings. He has seen families come and go, lived through heat waves and hurricanes, and can remember when children lived here, too. "We'd fill two buses back in the 1940s," he says.

To him and many others, Briny is a slice of old-time America, a throwback to an era when life was simple, lower-income families could afford to live next to the sea, and people would always help each other. "It was a lovely way of life, casual, conservative, friendly, and inexpensive," he says. "But the mood of the park has changed in the last 10 years. There are more people who've bought a place just for the weekend, younger people who work. It's getting near its time."

Still, like the Krafts, Tolford will be sorry to leave. "I've enjoyed my time here," he says, "but I don't know what I'm going to do with the money. Those who can't afford to go to a nursing home will be able to live in luxury for the rest of their lives. Others can go and live near their children."

At the moment, many of Briny Breezes' trailers are boarded up. Their occupants have departed back to summer homes up North. In October, after they return, they will select the winning bid from developers who have submitted detailed plans and a $20,000 "application fee" to lawyers in Washington, D.C. handling the sale.

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Vivian Billock will be a reluctant member of the millionaire's club, too. Mrs. Billock, who lives with her husband, Freeman, a retired carpenter, and cat, Shadow, in an elegantly decorated single trailer, has three granddaughters she wants to support through college. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to help them do that?" she says, sitting on her patio while sipping a coffee.

But that is about the only good she can see coming from the sale of a place she's called home for 17 years. "We're from Michigan, we're water people," she says. "We're not going to find a place like this by the sea, not for a million dollars."

To Billock, it doesn't come down to a simple choice - greed or the good life. She thinks one word explains why so many residents are keen to cash in - hurricanes. "At some point, Briny is going to get hit hard," she says. "People are tired of evacuating, going to motels, losing electricity." She should know: A neighbor's roof blew off during hurricane Wilma last October and smashed two of her windows.

As residents know, however, there will always be someone wanting their slice of the Atlantic. "There aren't many places like this with a beach on one side and a marina on the other," says Kraft. "But it's still a lot of money all of a sudden for something people paid only $30,000 to $40,000 for."

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