BRINY BREEZES, Fla. – The owners of nearly 500 mobile homes in one of the last waterfront trailer-park towns in South Florida stand to become instant millionaires if they agree to sell to a developer. But some are holding out, saying there are some things more important than money.
"You just can't buy a way of life," said Tom Byrne, a 68-year-old retired sales executive from New York who doesn't want to sell even though he would make a little over $1 million on the trailer and site he bought two years ago for $150,000. "This is my home."
Briny Breezes is a down-market relic of old Florida, surrounded by glamorous multimillion-dollar homes and splashy high-rise condos.
The Briny Breezes brochure calls it a "self-governed mobile home community of kindred souls." Residents of the Palm Beach County town cruise the narrow streets on golf carts, passing palm trees and tiny, neatly manicured yards. They wave to each other and chat about the next neighborhood outing — water aerobics at the community pool, shuffleboard near the clubhouse, bowling night.
With 600 feet of oceanfront property and an additional 1,100 feet along the Intracoastal Waterway, real estate like this in southeastern Florida is pure gold.
Boca Raton-based Ocean Land Investments has big plans for the property if the deal goes through, as many residents are certain will happen. The company envisions about 900 low-rise multimillion-dollar condo units, a high-end marina and a 300-room luxury hotel.
"There really is no other piece of property like this in Florida," said Logan Pierson, the company's vice president of acquisitions.
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 residents own shares based on the size and location of their lots.
"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."
Briny Breezes' board recently approved the sale for $510 million. The owners of the 488 trailers have until Jan. 10 to ratify or reject the deal. A two-thirds majority is needed to sell. The amount each person would get depends on how many shares the resident owns. Each share is worth roughly $32,000 under the developer's offer. Owners would not get any money — and wouldn't have to move out — until 2009.
Kevin Dwyer, 47, is all for the deal. Dwyer, who paid just $37,500 for his trailer nine years ago, would make about $800,000.
"See these pockets? They're empty," Dwyer said, a stack of unpaid bills sitting on a table in his single-wide trailer less than 100 yards from the ocean. "I've nickeled and dimed my whole life. I hit the lottery."
Pierson acknowledged that the loss of Briny Breezes means a piece of old Florida will be gone forever. But he said that because of the town's location on a barrier island, a hurricane could eventually wipe out Briny Breezes.
"At some point Briny is going to face a bad storm," he said. "There are other potential threats out there other than development."
Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty is not so sure it's a done deal because of constraints on zoning, water, sewage and traffic. "I find the developers extremely optimistic to the point of being delusional," she said.
For one thing, the community is 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."
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.
Asked how he would vote, he crossed his legs and breathed 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."