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Air of frustration at Sabre Park; Fires at mobile home site complicate transition to mall ownership

TOWN OF NIAGARA – The property where a mobile home park has resided since the 1970s seems destined to be part of an expansion of an outlet mall.

But until that happens, Sabre Park has become a source of frustration:

*For its new owner.

*For the few remaining people who live there.

*For town officials trying to ease its transition from residential development to whatever its future use will be.

*And for emergency responders who have twice been called there to deal with suspicious fires.

"The Fire Department has very grave concerns about the quality of the units left there vacant," Supervisor Steven C. Richards said. "It's like having only two people left in this great big apartment building; it becomes dangerous. My immediate concern is for the people who are left there."

On Nov. 12, an abandoned mobile home was burned to the ground. That blaze came less than five months after the park management office was firebombed. Both fires were labeled suspicious and remain under investigation.

Karen Maurer, spokeswoman for Fashion Outlets II, which bought the property in a foreclosure auction Oct. 5, said the company was planning to start moving tenants out in the spring. But given the quick deterioration of the property and the danger to tenants, the new plan is "the sooner the better," she said.

"We are working with the authorities to investigate that fire and hold whoever is responsible accountable if, in fact, it was an act of arson. Knowing that those actions endanger our residents and our public safety officers, this is not going to be tolerated," she said.

The park was acquired for $4 million by Fashion Outlets II, the only bidder in the foreclosure auction. Fashion Outlets II is a subsidiary of Macerich Partnership of Santa Monica, Calif., which sold the mall last year to Fashion Outlets of Niagara in Coral Gables, Fla., for $200 million.

The new owners have been tight-lipped about their plans for the 32.65-acre Sabre Park property, but made it clear that it would no longer be a mobile home park, introducing themselves for the first time to the remaining tenants at the end of October via a hand-delivered certified letter.

"As you may have heard, we were the successful bidder at the foreclosure sale, … and thus we are now the owner of Sabre Park and your landlord," said the introduction of a letter to residents. "We have decided to change the use of this property … from manufactured home lot rentals to some other use and that you as a tenant of Sabre Park will need to seek other accommodations and move out of the Park."

Maurer would not discuss the company's plans.

Richards said Sabre Park at one time was a well-maintained development. It began to deteriorate when previous owners violated their own rules by allowing people to sublet their homes to tenants and let their housing deteriorate.

However the location – adjacent to the mall and between the Military Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard business strips – is also a valuable one, Richards said.

"It's much too valuable for just another parking lot," Richards said. "Obviously, they are going to expand, and they said they will be coming forward shortly. That mall is active. It's a booming mall."

The same can't be said of Sabre Park.

The mobile home park at 1705 Factory Outlet Blvd. [formerly Third Avenue] was built four decades ago and at one time had 286 mobile homes. Most of these homes are gone now – some moved, some abandoned and some torn down as the park changed owners a number of times, declined and then fell into bankruptcy. Sabre Park Associates, which had owned the park since 2004, stopped paying on the $6.2 million mortgage in 2010, according to court papers, and on July 30, State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. signed the foreclosure order.

In 2011, 173 families tried to save the park and their investments, but they could not come up with the nearly $6 million needed to pull the park out of foreclosure. By June, only about 70 residents remained left with more than 130 vacant mobile homes that were being abandoned and stripped of metal.

The first fire happened days after condemnation notices were posted on about 130 of the mobile homes after the town began moving toward demolition. The property had been in receivership since the summer of 2011 as the result of foreclosure proceedings on its $6 million mortgage.

The more recent fire came a few days after a deadline imposed by new owner Fashion Outlets II.

Tenants were asked to sign an agreement by Nov. 10 to terminate their lease and move out by March 1, to assist the new owners with a "smooth transition." Those who agreed to terminate leases early were promised free rent until March and a check for $800.

After an original letter that threatened evictions and legal actions, a second letter came later the same day offering the $800 incentive and free rent. Tenants were also provided phone numbers and help from the Niagara Community Action Program.

Suzanne C. Shears, the agency's executive director, said about 20 families from Sabre Park contacted her office looking for lists of landlords. "We offered them lists, and most knew what they were looking for," Shears said.

Maurer said that most of the remaining tenants, who had leases that extended past March, had agreed to the buyout deal. As of last month, only 44 tenants were left, and of those, 30 were already facing eviction for not paying rents, according to Lockport attorney John J. Ottaviano, the court-appointed receiver of rents.

"At the end of the day, … it would be in their own best interest to take advantage of the assistance being offered," Richards said.

Town of Niagara Police Chief H. James Suitor said abandoned mobile homes are a danger because they tend to attract criminals, particularly those looking to strip metal. He said police will continue to patrol the site.