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Turkey Day far from home: Why some RVers chose to spend Thanksgiving in Flagstaff

The temperature had begun its climb toward a record 71 degrees on Thursday morning as Matt Hendershott tended to bacon sizzling on a skillet.

Potatoes and eggs would round out the Thanksgiving Day breakfast for Hendershott, his wife, three children and friend Brian Hjelvik.

But instead of spending the day at home with friends and family, the group had picked a different, less conventional place to celebrate Thanksgiving: among the ponderosa pines at the Kit Carson RV Park.

Benji Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

The Hendershott family and friend Brian Hjelvik, left, spent their Thanksgiving camping at the Kit Carson RV Park. Originally from the Northwest, Hjelvik and Matt Hendershott, in orange, are traveling mechanics working on a dam near Fountain Hills. The group decided to spend Thanksgiving in Flagstaff rather than make the long drive back to see family for the holiday, said Shalin Hendershott, in red.

Originally from eastern Washington and northern Idaho, Matt Hendershott and Hjelvik are traveling mechanics who have been working on replacing a hydroturbine at a dam near Fountain Hills.

It was too long of a drive to get home for the holiday, so they decided to get in their RV and head to Flagstaff instead, said Shalin Hendershott, Matt’s wife.

“We kinda miss the pine trees, this is a nice change from the desert,” she said.

And without having to worry about fitting in other family events and outings that day, it was one of the most relaxing holidays she could remember, Hendershott said.

The group was not the only one that spent Thanksgiving camping at RV parks around Flagstaff. With most area campgrounds closed for the season, RVers said the more developed parks were their next best option to camp out over the balmy holiday weekend.

Benji Shanahan, Arizona Daily Su 

Jessica Zaragoza, left, daughter Sadie Zaragoza and husband Mike Zaragoza  hike through the forest near their RV site at Black Bart's RV Park on Thursday. The family spent their Thanksgiving in Flagstaff and planned to cook a full turkey dinner out of their RV.  

It was the first time spending Thanksgiving in Flagstaff for Jessica and Mike Zaragoza and their two daughters. The family usually hosts a big turkey dinner at their home in Avondale but decided to take a break from that tradition this year, Jessica Zaragoza said, as she stood near the family’s RV at Black Bart’s RV Park.

Mike Zaragoza said it took some calling around before he found the site at Black Bart’s. Many of the other RV parks and KOA campgrounds around the Sedona and Flagstaff areas were already full, he said.

The Zaragozas said they made the trip to Flagstaff with another family and the group planned to prepare turkey dinner, including all the sides, right on site. In preparation, the Zaragozas had already set up tables, an outdoor stove, a wood pellet-fueled turkey smoker and a metal firepit filled with coals. They were going to try out campfire eclairs for dessert, Jessica Zaragoza said.

Before they started cooking, the families said they were headed out hiking in the forest to collect pine cones for table centerpieces.

“We’re not on any time frame,” Jessica Zaragoza said. “We’re on camping time.”

This was a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, unplug and unwind, the group said.

Benji Shanahan, Arizona Daily Su 

Jared Prince of Edmond, Oklahoma, stands outside of his RV at the Kit Carson RV Park on Thanksgiving. Prince and his wife were on their way home from Scottsdale and thought stopping and spending the night in Flagstaff would be a good way to break up the trip. The couple's only plan was to spend the day relaxing, then cook steak for dinner.   

An agenda-free Thanksgiving Day was the gameplan for others as well.

Jared and Melissa Prince were spending Thursday at the Kit Carson RV Park on their way home to the Oklahoma City area after visiting family in Scottsdale. They wanted to spend some time just the two of them and decided staying in Flagstaff would be a good way to break up the trip, Jared Prince said.

He said the couple was going to spend the day relaxing, watching football and cooking steak, not turkey, for dinner.

Benji Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

James Gappmayer and his family have made a Thanksgiving tradition of driving their RV from their home in Tucson to Flagstaff. His daughter lives in Flagstaff and attends Northern Arizona University. The family would probably eat turkey dinner outside to take advantage of the nice weather this year, Gappmayer said. 

James Gappmayer said his family didn’t have any big plans for Thursday, either. Gappmayer’s daughter is a student at Northern Arizona University so it has become a tradition for the family to drive their RV up from their Tucson home to spend the holiday in Flagstaff, he said. While they’re here, they also get a Forest Service permit to cut down a Christmas tree to take back to Tucson, he said.

Looking ahead to Thanksgiving dinner, Gappmayer said his wife had already cooked many parts of the meal in her kitchen at home, so there wasn’t much more prep to be done.

The family would probably set up their table and eat turkey dinner outside, Gappmayer said.

“It’s way too nice not to,” he said.

Tiny houses are trendy, unless they go up next door

DES MOINES, Iowa — As he tows a 96-square-foot house around Des Moines, Joe Stevens is overwhelmed by the intense, sometimes tearful support he receives from churches, schools and service groups for his plan to use the trendy little structures to help homeless people.

But when Stevens actually tried to create a village of the homes in Iowa's largest city, the response was far different.

"We got shot down," said Stevens, who leads a group that proposed erecting 50 tiny homes on a 5-acre industrial site north of downtown Des Moines. "It was a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt, a kneejerk situation."

Tiny homes have been promoted as the solution to all kinds of housing needs — shelter for the homeless, an affordable option for expensive big cities and simplicity for people who want to declutter their lives. But the same popularity that inspired at least six national TV shows about the homes often fails to translate into acceptance when developers try to build them next door.

In at least a dozen cases across the nation, neighbors organized to stop tiny house projects, including in Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; San Jose, California; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Tallahassee, Florida; and Bend, Oregon. Sometimes the efforts moved ahead despite objections, but in many cases, the communities were blocked.

The president of the American Tiny House Association said opposition arises even among people who feel an affinity for the homes.

"People say, 'Tiny home are great and cool, and you can put that village anywhere but right across the street from my subdivision,'" said Chris Galusha, who is also a Fort Worth, Texas, area builder.

The current interest in small houses follows a steady growth in the median size of homes, from 1,200 square feet in the 1940s to about 1,860 square feet in this decade.

As home sizes spiraled up, tiny house pioneers in the 1990s began promoting the austerity and frugality of spaces smaller than most garages. The idea captivated millions of Americans, even those who remain in more spacious accommodations.

"It's an aspirational lifestyle, and it's fun to watch people try to do something difficult, which is to live contrary to the general trend, which is more space," said Ben Keys, a real estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

The opposition is often focused on developments for homeless people, as in Des Moines. But in many cases, it also extends to tiny home communities designed for the open market.

That's what happened in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a developer had hoped to build 56 tiny homes near a neighborhood filled with ranch houses and split-levels. Opponents argued that the tiny homes would clash with existing housing, cause traffic problems and fail financially due to the cost of the 500 square-foot homes, which would be priced at about $90,000.

"The tiny houses, we feel they're a fad," said Robert Wilson, who helped lead the opposition. "It's a niche market, and we think it is not less expensive."

A similar story unfolded in the high-desert resort city of Bend, Oregon, where owners of a development inspired by author J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of a Middle Earth paradise were shocked when they learned of plans for a 22-lot tiny home development that would wrap around many existing houses.

"I think tiny homes are great and people can enjoy them if they like, but please don't put them in our neighborhood," said Joanna White Wolff, who fears existing home values could drop by $100,000 if the tiny development proceeds. "My home is my sanctuary, and it's going to be destroyed by different thinking."

Wolff and her neighbors are considering legal action to block the development if city leaders approve the plan, she said.

For his project to help the homeless, Stevens arranged for high school and college students to build the houses, with donations to cover costs. But after being thwarted in the search for a building site, the Des Moines group he heads, called Joppa, turned to the nearby city of Van Meter about locating the village there.

"We're not giving up because we really do believe this is an answer to a serious problem," said Stevens, who noted that about 250 people are typically homeless in the Des Moines area.

The homeless population in San Jose, California, is much larger — an estimated 4,000 people. That city would like to offer tiny houses as a solution, but one middle-class neighborhood has threatened to file a lawsuit.

"People are sympathetic toward the homeless, but to put this in an established neighborhood doesn't make sense," said Jon Kanter, a retiree who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years.

It's a comparable situation in Nashville, where residents went to court to stop the zoning board from approving a church's plans to build a village of 22 tiny homes for homeless people.

Some homeless advocates also oppose the move to offer tiny houses to homeless people, saying the money could be better spent subsidizing their move into traditional apartments.

In Tallahassee, Florida, a privately funded development called The Dwellings will open this fall, with 11 of an eventual 130 tiny houses intended for homeless people who have some resources. Residents will pay $550 to $850 a month for homes up to 410 square feet, a price that also includes meals and a range of other services.

Before the development could become a reality, backers had to give up on plans to locate it within the city because of zoning issues and then successfully fight a lawsuit filed by neighbors.

Tiny home supporters point to successes in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Seattle and Portland and Eugene, Oregon.

Sometimes communities actually seek out tiny home developments, although it is rare.

That's what happened in Colorado, where Pueblo-based Sprout Tiny Homes has been building tiny houses and then trucking them to communities that need affordable housing. More than 40 of the homes serve as seasonal housing for workers in the exorbitantly expensive resort city of Aspen. Others serve as overnight rentals in the city of Lyons, near Rocky Mountain National Park. The latest effort is a market-rate development of 200 homes on nearly 20 acres in the city of Salida.

Company President Rod Stambaugh said the key to avoiding opposition is to fill a need and take pains to be clear about your intentions.

"You have to have a full-blown plan that's well thought out," he said.

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Flagstaff trailer park residents share plight at council meeting

Residents and advocates for residents of the Arrowhead Village Mobile Home Park filled half of the Flagstaff City Council chambers Tuesday night, one week after the residents were given a notice that they had six months to vacate the park.

A notice delivered to the residents said the park had been sold and the new owner, Kings House Inc., intends to use the property for commercial use. However, the property’s zoning does not allow commercial use without a conditional use permit or a rezoning.

John Viktora, who addressed the council advocating for the residents, said the notice’s proximity to the holiday will put a damper on time that should be spent with family.

“What they got for Thanksgiving was 50 evictions,” Viktora said. “Money is power, and these people don’t have the money so they don’t have the power.”

Another speaker told the council she had been living at the park for four years. She said many of the tenants are families with young children who will not have any suitable place to go that they will be able to afford.

She said she understands that Kings House Inc. owns the property now, but she hopes the owner will consider the plight of the families that will be evicted.

Cathy Davis, who bought her home in 2015 in Arrowhead Village, said she would not have purchased the home if she thought this could happen.

In her lease document, which was most recently signed in 2016, the document states the “landlord has no specific plans to implement a change in use of the mobile home park during the term of these statements. However (the) landlord expects that a change in use of individual spaces within the park or all or a portion of the park could take place at any time.”

Davis’ lease was on a month-to-month basis, with the same terms and conditions of the signed document unless a new document was executed and provided.

Susan Ontiveros, a neighbor of Davis who has lived in the trailer park for 31 years, said her lease is also month-to-month and the other residents have the same agreement.

Davis said other places around town might not be suitable for families with young children, and housing in the city is more geared toward college students instead of families.

“We will have all these places for college kids coming in and no one to work,” she told the council.

She said the people in the park, even those who have trailers that are new enough to be moved, cannot afford to relocate somewhere within 50 miles, which would qualify them for compensation of up to $7,500 for a single-wide trailer and owners of a double-wide could receive $12,500 through the state’s Mobile Home Relocation Fund. Owners of mobile homes who choose to abandon their homes can receive up to $1,850 for a single-wide and $3,125 for a double-wide, according to the letter residents received.

“I put everything I had into my home,” she told the council. “There is nothing I can afford within 50 miles. Everybody there is low-income, but they work hard.”

Ontiveros said she was planning to do some renovation to her house, like adding new windows, fixing the porch and some landscaping in the yard, but now she has to start looking for a new place to live.

Even though Ontiveros is upset about the change, she does not see many options other than to find a new home after 31 years where she lives with her husband and granddaughter.

“It’s pretty much a done deal,” she said. “They will take all of us out of here and then wait until they get the zoning for commercial use.”

COMING SATURDAY: Tenants have little legal recourse