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State agencies probe Cozy Acres
In Boscobel
Cozy Acres
Ageing trailers with little room to spare make Cozy Acres feel crowded and cluttered. A public play structure shows signs of age and misuse.

BOSCOBEL - Two Wisconsin state agencies have launched investigative probes of the business practices and living conditions at Boscobel’s Cozy Acres Mobile Home Park.

Spokespersons for the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) confirmed the ongoing investigations last week. It is the policy of each department, according to the spokespersons, to not comment on ongoing investigations.

DATCP regulates relationships between landlords and tenants at mobile home parks, according to a memorandum prepared by the Wisconsin Legislative Council for Travis Tranel, who represents Wisconsin Assembly District 49, which includes Boscobel. The council advises legislators on legal matters.

The DSPS, the memo continues, oversees licenses at mobile home parks. As a condition of licensure, Wisconsin’s administrative code, which carries the force of law, requires that “the operator of a [mobile home] community maintain the community in a clean, orderly, and sanitary condition at all times,” and charges the DSPS with enforcing the rule.

The agency has “greater enforcement power,” according to the council memo, “if it finds reasonable cause to believe the construction, sanitary condition, or operation of the community creates an immediate danger to health.” In such cases, according to the council, the agency may “order the removal of the immediate danger and impose monetary penalties” against the park owner, Michelle Gillette of Baraboo.

Evictions raised concern

A spokesperson for Representative Tranel said the investigations stem from concerns brought to light at eviction hearings that took place in October in Grant County Court, as reported in the Dial.

At that October 3 hearing, park resident Matthew Turner told the court that he’d been illegally charged $2,000 to cover back rent owed by a former resident, a practice prohibited under state law. In 2016, DATCP had issued a warning to Cozy Acre’s manager, Bruce Zinkle, over a similar dispute.

Zinkle told the Dial after the October hearing that recouping back-rent from new tenants was standard practice at the park. “We’re not interested in making any money on the homes,” he told the Dial. “We just want to recover the back rent.”

Another resident, Steve Woodside, claimed at the October hearing that he was being evicted as retaliation for complaining to the Dial about conditions in the park. State law specifically prohibits evicting tenants in retaliation for complaints.

Both men, according to court records, owed back rent; tenants at Cozy Acres own their mobile home and rent the ground it’s parked on, as well as access to power, water, and septic.

After reading about the hearing, according to his spokesman, Tranel reached out to the two state agencies and requested them to review the allegations

“We were hoping that DSPS and DATCP could work together on this issue to clarify the extent of property management practices at Cozy Acres cited in the October 6 article,” Rep. Tranel said through his spokesperson.

Owner breaks silence

Conditions at Cozy Acres were first reported by the Dial in August. Tenants of the park, which is licensed by both Marion Township and also the State of Wisconsin, aired a long list of complaints: Deteriorated homes, some of them more than 60 years old; bone-wrenching potholes in the private road servicing the park; frequent sheriff’s activity; accumulating trash, especially old electronics; unfair fees, such as a fee for dogs; and the persistent threat of eviction if they complained about conditions to management.

Operated by Zinkle, the park is one of six owned by Gillette, who also owns a wedding and event center in her adopted hometown of Baraboo. Gillette had declined to comment on her property, but responded to queries about the state investigations via email.

She pointed out that she bears no responsibility for the deteriorated homes in the park, as they are the personal property of her tenants. Under state law, this is factually accurate. She further stated that improvements, such as a more navigable road to the trailer park, are prohibitively expensive, and would increase rents at the park.

“If this park were to get shut down where would these people go?” she wrote. “We try and work with them financially. My rents are low because I’m doing the best I can for them. This is a business, not a charity. I could sell tomorrow and cash out. Do you know what that would mean to my tenants? They couldn’t afford to live there.”

Gillette pushed back on those who would characterize her as a wealthy outsider with no sympathy for her tenants, pointing to the real estate business she built with her late husband, Dan Gillette.

“My husband and I worked from nothing. One small building at a time,” she wrote. “We did the cleaning of our apartments and all the maintenance. We have been blessed, but that was due to a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and taking some scary risks. You see us as successful, but we also failed. Then we picked ourselves up. At the end of every day, I look myself honestly in the mirror, which I will continue to do.”

As far as the impact of the investigations, Gillette pledged to abide by whatever rulings the state agencies hand down. “I will comply with all that is necessary and move on,” she wrote.

Neither DATCP nor DSPS could confirm a timeline for their investigations.