AP NEWS

Cherry Lane residents unite for a stronger voice on the future of their homes

February 27, 2019

With the future of fire-damaged trailers at Somerset’s Cherry Lane Estates undetermined, trailer park residents are making sure their voices about the trailer park’s future are heard.

Park residents on Tuesday agreed to form an association to organize the effort for making demands about the park’s future to the owners, to the courts and to the borough. Members of the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh, said the intent is for residents to take action themselves and get resources from the community to improve the park.

Daniel Vitek, a Community Justice Project attorney, said the organization the residents plan to set up is still preliminary.

“What we mostly talked about is the residents who were still there are intent on preserving their housing and making the place a better place to live on their own,” he said.

Vitek added that the group is not seeking to take ownership of the park. The purpose of the effort is to make sure resident viewpoints are heard.

“(The residents) might be asking the court to appoint someone to take ownership, like a receiver, but they would have to get the court to give them that authority,” he said.

Somerset County Judge Scott Bittner declared the park a public nuisance in December, and ordered Divinity Investments and owner Thomas Mongold to pay the borough $300,000 in past-due water bills and to clean up fire-damaged and dilapidated trailers within 90 days.

The order also included a special injunction prohibiting the owner from selling the park without court approval.

Borough Manager Michele Enos said no representatives from Divinity have come to the borough office to discuss removal of the dilapidated trailers.

“We have not received a call from the owner inquiring (about) a demolition permit to this date,” she said Tuesday.

Vitek said tenants don’t have faith in Divinity meeting the court’s 90-day deadline Tuesday.

“They are all disappointed with what has become of the park, and they are trying to do something about it,” he said.

The December order identifies 47 abandoned trailers and 14 fire-damaged trailers as being in disrepair. Divinity officials had 30 days since Dec. 6 to secure homes that they intend to repair or restore to a “habitable and safe condition” for rental or sale.

Borough officials estimate the cost to demolish each trailer at $5,000 to $10,000.

As of Tuesday, many of the vacant trailers were still unsecured, with windows missing and doors either opened or removed entirely. Several vacant trailers were filled with mold and weather damage from previous storms and had feral cats and vermin roaming inside.

Enos said while the borough sympathizes with the residents’ situation, she could not discuss legal options the borough could take once the court deadline passes.

“I’m sure our attorneys will have a position as well, but I’m sure we won’t give one until after that deadline has been reached,” she said.

Enos added that the borough has had frequent inquiries from people interested in purchasing the park over the last six months.

“Obviously, nothing has been concrete as far as any type of purchase,” she said.

Vitek said the state of the park is continuing to decline with the owners neglecting their duties. At the meeting, residents told Vitek about water leaks and low water pressure, and the conditions could be getting worse.

“We’ve discussed some of the issues that have been there for a long time, like the roads and the abandoned trailers, but also some newer issues, like no one’s plowing the streets,” he said.

Vitek said he’s been in contact with borough solicitor James Cascio. He said borough officials continue to show respect for the residents’ needs during the court battle with Divinity.

“I want to commend the borough council for having concern for the residents and not taking action that would throw them out of their homes or shut off their water in the middle of the winter,” he said.

Cherry Lane has been the site of 13 arsons and two attempted arsons since May. Police also believe fires set on Sept. 18, 2016, and July 5, 2017, both at 122 Gary Lane, were set by the same individual, who remains at large. The last fire was in August.

Borough police Chief Randy Cox said in January that police are devoted to the case and have a list of “people of interest.”

Vitek said residents are concerned that more arsons could occur in the future. While those fears vary depending on the resident, Vitek said everyone who lives in the trailer park is aware that nearby homes could be a potential target.

“Everybody acknowledges that they have, in close proximity to them, an abandoned trailer,” he said “You just can’t get around it in that park.”

See video and photos of some of the fire-damaged trailers at www.dailyamerican.com.

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press.All rights reserved.