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Backstory: Briny beach memoirs

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

By Richard LuscombeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 2006



BRINY BREEZES, FLA.

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.

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"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.

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.

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