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Somerset Borough seeks hazard status for Cherry Lane ruins

November 28, 2018

Cherry Lane Estates residents are organizing while Somerset Borough officials legally prepare to declare 14 fire-damaged trailers there public hazards.

Borough officials were in Somerset County Judge Scott Bittner’s courtroom Tuesday to deem the mobile home park a hazard and require Divinity Investments, the property’s owner, to clean up the park.

Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox testified that the fire-damaged trailers are a total loss and a safety hazard to nearby residents.

“Sometimes all that is left is the framing,” he said.

Cherry Lane has been the site of 13 arsons and two attempted arsons since early 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.

Cox said officers entered other vacant mobile homes on the property, where the interiors were not secured from the elements. Many of the trailers they visited have mold, mildew and signs of vermin roaming inside.

“Generally I found them to be in poor condition,” he said.

The park has 57 vacant trailers. Borough officials estimate the cost to demolish each trailer at $5,000 to $10,000.

The borough filed two civil complaints against Divinity Investments and owner Thomas Mongold on Sept. 14, attempting to recoup more than $300,000 in past-due water and sewer bills, and force the cleanup of the trailers within 30 days.

Borough solicitor James Cascio said Divinity attorney Jack Sharpe called his office to report that they would not be appearing in court and would not be providing a defense.

Also in the courtroom Tuesday was attorney Daniel Vitek, of the Community Justice Project, who is representing residents from Cherry Lane Estates and the nearby Roof Garden mobile home park, which is also owned by Mongold. The Community Justice Project is a nonprofit legal aid law firm that specializes in class-action litigation.

“The borough has been very considerate with the residents’ well-being,” he said. “For instance, they have not chosen to shut off water service to the park, and they didn’t ask today to shut down the park.”

Vitek said he’s had two meetings with residents from both parks, and the residents want to be more proactive with the future of their homes. Vitek added that residents he’s talked to own their trailers, and they want to protect themselves and their interests.

“That would be our best wish, that the residents could come together enough to organize and find some funding ... and to ask the judge to appoint them as receivers, which would take over management of the park,” he said.

Somerset Township Municipal Authority solicitor Michael Barbera said the authority still has a $180,157.29 lien against High Top, the LLC run by Mongold for Roof Garden, for unpaid water bills at the mobile home park from April 2015 to July 2018.

High Top raised residents’ rent fees to $350 in October, a $50 increase, which the company said was needed for repairs.

“Due to the increasing repairs/maintenance required at the park, especially the lack of concern by Residents to fix/repair their water leaks, broken meters, running toilets, etc., High Top has no other alternative but to increase lot rent,” a letter to residents states.

Divinity Investments officials and Mongold did not return telephone calls from the Daily American Tuesday. In a June phone interview, Mongold said the county and local officials are responsible for cleaning up debris from the trailer fires. Mongold added that the homes are not insured.

The judge did not immediately issue an order Tuesday.

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