The arbitrator in a rental dispute at Sandalwood Estates Mobile Home Park has decided in favor of the heir of a former resident, upholding the city's mobile home park rent stabilization ordinance in the face of a challenge by the park's owner.

The arbitrator found that the rate increase on a mobile home space owned by Herman Jensen's estate, did not comply with a Petaluma ordinance on rent stabilization. "Therefore, I find that the proposed rent increase is unreasonable and unsupported by evidence," said arbitrator Richard Levin.

This is the latest development in a series of disputes between the park's owner and a group of tenants, who have ended up in arbitration repeatedly in recent years.

At the Oct. 28 arbitration, Jensen's daughter, Jan Frym, said the person who is offering to buy her father's mobile home is entitled to the same $450 per month rent that her father paid. According to Frym, she is honoring her late father's wishes to pass on his low rent to another person of limited means.

But the park owner, Bill Feeney of Newport Beach, asserted that Frym forfeited the rental rate by not selling immediately after her father's death in February 2013.

"She's not a homeowner, not a tenant. The ordinance does not apply to heirs, only to tenants. Had she sold the home immediately, she would have had the benefit of the lower rent. I think we gave her ample time to do something," Feeney said.

But according to Cindy Rich, who administers the rental ordinances for Petaluma and other municipalities, the Petaluma ordinance guarantees a new tenant the same rent as the most recent former tenant. Under the ordinance, she said, landlords can only raise the rent the equivalent of the Consumer Price Index, not to exceed 6 percent. The Consumer Price Index for this fiscal year was 2.6 percent.

However, the rent stabilization only applies to tenants who are on month-to-month rental agreements, not to those with long-term leases. And there's the rub.

Bill Donahue, president of the Sandalwood Homeowners' Association, says Feeney pushes new tenants into long-term leases by offering them the choice of a lease or arbitration. He says seniors who want to rent a space in the park have a hard time understanding the 30-page leases, and always opt to just sign them.

But, Feeney says the long-tem leases, with rents as high as $1,200 a month, are fair. According to Feeney, the current rent stabilized prices are artificially low and do not permit him to recoup the $2 million he has spent making improvements at Sandalwood since he bought the park in 2001.

When Feeney first took over the park, some residents were paying as little as $250 a month. About half accepted his offer for long-term leases, while the other 90 residents took him to arbitration and ultimately agreed to a $140 per month increase for each space. Frym's father was among the 90 who accepted that agreement.

Bonnie Gaebler, Petaluma's housing administrator affirmed that the city council "has absolutely no interest" in changing the rent stabilization ordinance at this time.

(Contact Lois Pearlman at