Sale of trailer-park town may make its residents instant millionaires


Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 11:12 p.m.

BRINY BREEZES — Nestled conspicuously amid multimillion-dollar homes and splashy high-rise condos, the coastal trailer-park town of Briny Breezes seems out of place, a relic of Old Florida that may soon vanish.

If residents approve the Palm Beach County community's sale to a developer for more than a half-billion dollars, almost every owner of the 488 trailers would become an instant millionaire. Not a bad return on investment if you consider that some bought their homes as recent as a decade ago for $35,000.

But just how much is a lifestyle worth?

It's quiet here in one of the last remaining coastal trailer-park communities between Miami and Palm Beach, an island of unpretentiousness surrounded by glitz and glamour.

Residents cruise the narrow streets on golf carts, passing palm trees and tiny, neatly manicured yards. They wave to each other, exchange goodies and chat about the next neighborhood outing — water aerobics at the community pool, shuffleboard near the clubhouse and bowling nights.

"You just can't buy a way of life," said Tom Byrne, a 68-year-old retired sales executive from New York. He doesn't want to sell even though he stands to make a little over $1 million on the trailer and site he bought two years ago for $150,000. "This is my home."

Kevin Dwyer, 47, has a different attitude.

"See these pockets? They're empty," Dwyer said. A stack of unpaid bills sits on a table in his single-wide trailer — it's less than 100 yards from the ocean. "I've nickeled and dimed my whole life. I hit the lottery." Dwyer, who paid just $37,500 for his trailer nine years ago, would make about $800,000.

The 43-acre town sprouted from a strawberry farm in the 1920s, back when Florida's charm was its subtropical weather and quiet, coastal bliss — long before the days of Art Deco, Miami Vice and Walt Disney World.

So-called "tin-can tourists" came down yearly with their trailers to escape the Northern cold. A group of regular visitors bought the property in 1958, and it became a town in 1963. It is run as a corporation by a board of directors, and the residents own shares based on the size and location of their lot. The number of shares — each worth about $32,000 under the developer's offer — will determine how much residents gets if the town is sold.

Briny Breezes' board recently approved the sale for $510 million. Shareholders have until Jan. 10 to ratify or reject the deal. A two-thirds majority is needed to sell, although the contract isn't official — and residents don't get any money — until 2009.

With 600 feet of oceanfront property and another 1,100 feet along the Intracoastal Waterway, land like this in Southeast Florida is gold.

"This is pretty much it for an affordable community along the coast," said Debbi Murray of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. "It's just another piece of Floridiana that is going to disappear."

And it's not just a Florida phenomenon, said John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.

"There's huge pressure on that land and the values have been skyrocketing. We're seeing this up and down the coast," McIlwain said. "These holdouts really don't stand much of a chance."

John and Gay Sideris, retired teachers from New York who bought their home in 2001, are conflicted.

"It will be good for us because we'll be able to help our family, but this is an amazing place to live. You know all your neighbors. You can walk your dog in your pajamas," said Gay Sideris, 70.

"If you sneeze, a neighbor hands you a napkin," added John Sideris, 71.

The couple paid just $155,000 for their home and now stand to make close to $1.5 million.

"We've been living a beautiful life," John Sideris said, sitting in a chair staring out his window at his boat tied up to a dock just feet away. Similar lots up and down the coast sell for millions.

Asked how he'll vote, he crosses his arms and breathes a heavy sigh.

"The money is great but you can't get another place like this to live," he said. "It's like Club Med."

Boca Raton-based Ocean Land Investments has big plans for the property if the deal is approved. The company had initially envisioned about 2,000 low-rise multimillion-dollar condo units, a high-end marina and a 300-room luxury hotel. This week, however, after discussions with neighboring town officials about density and traffic concerns, the company scaled back the residential project and now plans to build just about 900 condo units, along with the hotel and marina.

"There really is no other piece of property like this in Florida," said Logan Pierson, the company's vice president of acquisitions.

He acknowledged that the loss of Briny Breezes means a piece of Old Florida will be gone forever, but notes that, because of its location on a barrier island, a hurricane could eventually wipe out the town.

"At some point Briny is going to face a bad storm," Pierson said. "There are other potential threats out there other than development."

Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty isn't so sure it's a done deal because of constraints on zoning, water, sewage and traffic for such a high-density project.

"I find the developers extremely optimistic to the point of being delusional," McCarty said.

The community is located in a hurricane evacuation zone and has few ways in or out. Developers will have to clear their plans through the state before any dirt is moved, and neighboring communities will have a chance to weigh in.

"This would be extremely complicated and extremely unpopular," McCarty said. "But people see dollar signs and it sparks the imagination."

"It's a tragedy to see it go," added Mayor William Koch of the neighboring town of Gulf Stream. "I'm sure there will be a coalition of municipalities that will fight this."

In the end, what's really at stake is a lifestyle.

The Briny Breezes brochure says it all: "A self governed mobile home community of kindred souls."

Maybe. But not for long. These kindred souls are about to become instant millionaires — and neighbors no more, a way of life sold to the highest bidder. Gone forever.

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