By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — TOWN OF NIAGARA — Another suspicious fire is under investigation at Sabre Park.
Firefighters from Niagara Active Hose Volunteer Fire Co. and two other local fire companies responded to a blaze that gutted one of several mobile homes that have been vacated amid an ongoing transition in ownership of the site.
Niagara Active Hose Assistant Chief Shawn Jasper said Monday fire crews arrived on the scene just after 2 p.m. to find the trailer "fully involved." Jasper said no one was inside the trailer at the time and no injuries were reported. The trailer was a total loss.
The blaze is being investigated by the Niagara County Origin and Cause Team and the Niagara County Sheriff's Department, according to Jasper who said investigators are looking into eyewitness reports that a tenant who had been evicted from the mobile home visited the scene the day before.
"Right now, it's an open investigation," Jasper said.
Monday's fire is the second identified as having a suspicious cause at Sabre Park in less than six months. On June 18, a fire at the property's management building caused an estimated $100,000 damage. Sheriff's Department investigators and Town of Niagara Police Chief James Suitor both said that blaze was intentionally set and it still remains under investigation as an arson.
Occupancy at Sabre Park has dwindled considerably in recent months amid speculation that the property was being sold to another owner. Last month, the new owners of the adjacent Fashion Outlets of Niagara purchased the park for $4 million at a foreclosure auction. The park, which once housed several hundred mobile park owners, is now down to less than 30 by Jasper's estimation.
Several former tenants abandoned their mobile homes on-site and Jasper said many of those trailers have since been stripped of copper and other metal, creating potential fire hazards for firefighters. As a result, he said, Niagara Active Hose has adopted a policy that when responding to blazes at Sabre Park, firefighters are not to enter any structure, but rather fight fires from the outside only.
"It's a very dangerous situation for our firefighters," Jasper said.
Macerich Partnership, L.P. bought the mall last summer for $200 million. The company acquired a $6.4 million lien on the mobile home park last year. It then purchased the Sabre Park land at a foreclosure auction for $4 million through a subsidiary called Fashion Outlets II, LLC.
In an emailed statement, a Fashion Outlets spokesperson said, “The safety of the residents living at the property is our top priority and the cause of today's fire will be diligently investigated. We are working with state procedures to properly demolish the homes as they are vacated.”
At the end of October, remaining Sabre Park tenants received written notice confirming what trailer owners suspected — the new owners would not continue to operate the property as a mobile home park long-term and, as a result, they would be forced to leave.
The notice, from Fashion Outlets II, LLC, informed tenants that the company “decided to change the use of this property” and that is is required by law to inform all tenants. The letter added that the tenants would need to “seek other accommodations and move out of the park.”
The notice further stated that all current leases would be honored, but that tenants who do not keep up on rent would be subject to eviction and would be responsible for a portion of the company’s attorney fees if litigation was necessary.
Another document was circulated by an agent working as property manager at the site, which offered a buy-out for tenants who were willing to vacate by March 1, 2013.
In exchange for an early exit, the notice suggested the new property owners would not require tenants to continue paying rent and would checks for $800 apiece after they left. Tenants were informed that they needed to decide whether to take the deal by Nov. 10.
When asked what he'd like to see happen to prevent fires at the site in the future, Jasper said he'd like the new property owners to move as quickly as possible to evict all remaining tenants and clear the lot of any remaining vacant trailers.
"Just get it done and over with if you are going to evict them," Jasper said.