The clock is ticking on a plan to demolish more than 130 vacant mobile homes at Sabre Park on Factory Outlet Boulevard, but a suspected arson in the park's management office Monday has made plans even more urgent.
Meanwhile, a $5,000 reward is being offered to anyone who can help authorities arrest an arson suspect.
Sabre Park has been located in the town for the past four decades, but the property has been in steady decline for years and went into foreclosure last year when Sabre Park LLC declared bankruptcy. Many residents have just walked away, abandoning homes. Only about 70 of the 286 homes in the park are still occupied.
Safety for the remaining residents has been called a major concern by town officials and the park management company, M. Shapiro Real Estate Group of Michigan, which manages several other parks with a total of 18,000 units. The company began managing Sabre Park when it was put into receivership last summer as a result of foreclosure proceedings on its $6 million mortgage. Under receivership, neither the bank nor Sabre Park LLC operates the park while legal issues are being cleared up.
"This fire should be a wake-up call to the receiver. This is a matter of safety and health," Supervisor Steven C. Richards said last week.
"Mobile homes have a tendency to go up pretty quick when they catch fire," Councilman Danny Sklarski said. "All of a sudden you get a fire in one [abandoned home], and it jumps over, then there could be a tragedy. Our primary responsibility to the residents of our town is to protect their safety."
Property manager Mark Kassab, of M. Shapiro Real Estate Group, agreed. He said the company has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the arson at Sabre Park. Anyone with information is directed to call Niagara County Sheriff Investigator Jeffrey Pytlik at 438-3336.
Town of Niagara Police Chief H. James Suitor said the department's investigation has found that someone poured some type of flammable liquid on the management building and threw an incendiary device through a window.
He said the property is insured, but it would be up to the experts to decide if the soot-covered building could be reopened.
Kassab and town officials agreed that the vandalism at the management office is just a microcosm of the safety issues facing the entire park.
"We are going to move as quickly as possible. Obviously there is going to be a big financial dollar amount that is going to go with this demolition," said Kassab. "But it is clear it has got to be done."
"We realize that a lot of the vacant homes have invited vandals and are an attractive nuisance. The first step in stabilizing this property is to remove the attractive nuisance," Kassab said. "We get everything from squatters to folks coming in and stripping every piece of copper and precious metal, including the aluminum siding."
Kassab said the company has not been given any direction to close the park down. At this time, operations are continuing. By state law, all residents in good standing were recently offered a one-year lease.
Although previously there were talks of the property being purchased by the nearby Fashion Outlets Mall, neither Kassab nor the Town Board confirmed that.
Sabre Park was established in the 1970s and once was part of the Sabre Saw complex.
Richards said that company was one of the many that moved their businesses out of the country many years ago.
"It was a great development then. Very well taken care of," Richards said.
"This didn't happen over a two-year period. This happened over a [long] period of time," said Sklarski, pointing to the overall deterioration of the park. "Part of the responsibility has to be with the tenants and with the owner of the park."
Richards said that the owners allowed residents to violate park rules by letting them sublease homes to tenants.
"If the park was kept up internally, this would still be a valuable park," the supervisor said. "They allowed their housing stock to deteriorate. You have your life investment in your home, and all you need is for someone to move next to you who becomes a bad neighbor, and it ruins the value of your property."
Sklarski said the town has some responsibility as well, failing to take action on abandoned mobile homes.
"The priority now is abandoned homes left next to homes that people are living in," Richards said. "They are a hazard and need to be taken care of. For us, the priority would be to take all the necessary steps to get these homes down."
Richards said the town Building Department has to give owners 30 days to bring their condemned homes up to code, but in the past this was not being done, and owners were not being held accountable.
"What we have to have is a mechanism that allows us to do this within the confines of the law," Sklarski said of the demolition code the town approved last week.
Richards said there is also a process in place if the town can't find the owner.
"Those that live there currently will also be protected because someone is going to take action, and we are going to do it within the letter of the law," Sklarski said. "This is a good thing."
Nobody could say what the future holds for the park, but all agreed that it can't remain in its current condition.
"I didn't create it, but I am here to assist in resolving this," Kassab said. "I think it is extremely unsafe, and we've got a lot of children in this park. We still have 60 or 70 residents here and we are sensitive to their needs."