SNOW HILL – Fulltime residents of White Horse Park are suing Worcester County over its plan to enforce decades-old occupancy restrictions.
Attorney Hugh Cropper, representing a group of about 55 permanent residents of White Horse Park, has launched a multi-pronged response to the county’s plan to fine residents who fail to leave the community during the winter months. Cropper filed a complaint for declaratory judgement Nov. 21 and an administrative appeal on Nov. 19 in Worcester County Circuit Court.
“I feel like I need to cover all my bases to preserve the appellate rights of my clients,” Cropper said. “It’s just a very unusual situation.”
White Horse Park, a quiet community at the end of Beauchamp Road near Ocean Pines, was created in the early 1980s as one of two campground subdivisions in Worcester County. Though it was initially a place for vacationers to park their RVs, in the decades since it’s gradually filled up with park model and modular homes. Roughly 55 of the community’s 465 units are occupied by year-round residents. Many of them are senior citizens who have lived in White Horse Park for years. While that’s technically not permitted under the campground subdivision regulations—which say that between Sept. 30 and April 1 units shall not be occupied for more than 30 consecutive days or an aggregate of 60 days—those regulations weren’t enforced.
Last year, however, county officials advised White Horse Park property owners at a community meeting that they’d need to begin complying with the seasonal occupancy restrictions. Alarmed, the park’s year-round residents engaged Cropper to see what they could do.
Over the course of 2019, Cropper submitted various versions of a text amendment that would have enabled existing residents to remain in the park. The latest version, which would have allowed existing residents to be grandfathered in, was rejected by the Worcester County Commissioners in September. On Oct. 1, they sent White Horse Park property owners a letter outlining an enforcement plan of escalating fines to ensure residents followed the park’s occupancy rules.
It’s that enforcement plan that Cropper is now fighting through the court system. He initially submitted appeals to the Worcester County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on the basis that the county’s plan to fine property owners came too late, as officials had known about the fulltime residents for years and were only just now fining them.
“In my opinion the county has waived the right to fine people,” Cropper said when he submitted the appeals. “They’ve known about these year-round occupancies since the 1990s.”
When Ed Tudor, the county’s director of development review and permitting, rejected the applications Cropper made to the BZA, the attorney filed an administrative appeal in Worcester County Circuit Court Nov. 19. He’s seeking judicial review of the department’s decision “to reject petitioners’ valid appeals” regarding the enforcement and interpretation of the county’s zoning ordinance related to White Horse Park.
In the subsequent Nov. 21 complaint for declaratory judgement, nine permanent residents of the park —meant to serve as a representative sample of the 55 who live there fulltime — have filed suit against Worcester County, the Worcester County Commissioners and the Worcester County Department of Development Review and Permitting. The complaint outlines the history of the park and cites the park’s declaration of restrictions, which states that campsites can only be occupied on a seasonal basis. The complaint also says that as RVs have been replaced with permanent single family dwellings, county officials have inspected and signed off on those dwellings.
“At least one of the plaintiffs was required to provide sprinklers in their home as a result of recent building code revisions, which is only required of year-round occupancy,” the complaint reads.
It goes on to state that the park’s permanent residents have HUD conforming mortgages, consistent with year-round occupancy, and that residents pay property taxes consistent with year-round occupancy.
“Now, after failing to enforce the code for nearly 33 years, and after requiring residents to replace units with code-compliant year-round single family homes, the Worcester County Commissioners seek to enforce the previously ignored provisions of the county code and threaten to fine the permanent or year-round residents for their occupancy,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit claims that when many of the plaintiffs purchased their homes, they were told by realtors, builders and even park management that they could live there year-round.
“Worcester County now seeks to evict and penalize its citizens, who rightfully purchased permanent and full time residences in White Horse Park, built to permanent and fulltime standards (at considerable additional expense) as required by the Worcester County Commissioners,” the complaint reads.
Cropper’s goal is to have a judge confirm that the county is “estopped” (time barred) from fining or attempting to evict White Horse Park residents and issue an order to that effect.
As for the residents, they continue to hope for a positive outcome after months of uncertainty regarding their living arrangements. Shirley Skillman, who’s owned property in the park for nearly 15 years, says park security guards — who for years have been on staff to make sure the community remains safe — now spend their shifts filling out a spreadsheet that details which homes have cars parked in front of them and lights on at night.
“The guards are supposed to watch out for us, not spy on us,” Skillman said.
She said that while some residents have moved in with family members elsewhere, others have no place to go.
“A couple who are 80 and 86 are parking their vehicle at a neighbor’s house and staying in the home with no lights on so no one can see that they are there,” Skillman said. “Another individual has been staying at a relative’s home, which is not equipped for cold weather, and is sitting in a chair wrapped in a quilt. He has a very comfortable cottage that he is not supposed to reside in, but spent the past couple of nights there because he is tired of freezing. He hid his car behind his house. He is 71.”
Though she still believes the text amendment grandfathering existing residents in would have been the best solution, Skillman and the other park residents are now waiting to see if the court system will provide any relief.
“We can only hope we get positive results,” she said. “We had hoped this would have been resolved prior to this so residents would not have to be enduring this impossible situation.”