SACKETS HARBOR — On the third floor of the Jefferson County Office Building, inside the Real Property Tax Services office, there’s a “Problem Folder,” and inside it is paperwork on a long-abandoned motel that’s been set on fire three times in the last month.
The abandoned, eight-room Harbor Motel at the corner of Route 3 and Adams Road was set on fire Friday morning for the third time since Oct. 3. The first fire was contained to one room, and the second to one part of the exterior — both were extinguished quickly.
Around 1:30 a.m. Friday, the motel was fully engulfed. Starting in the rear of the building, the blaze moved up and was protected by the metal roof, making it hard for firefighters to fight it. Each room but one collapsed and the structure was split in half by the time crews cleared at 5:30 a.m.
Now, the conversation of demolishing a motel that’s been vacant for nearly 15 years has begun. Town of Hounsfield Supervisor Timothy W. Scee said it’s the responsibility of the property owner to clear the property of the debris and caved walls.
According to the Jefferson County Real Property Tax Services, the owner, however, appears to be Christopher M. Swartz, the former Jreck Sub principal owner who in July 2017 was sentenced to 12½ years in prison for federal wire fraud and tax evasion. He bought the property in 2013 for $200,000. Taxes on the property haven’t been paid since 2014, and the current bill sits at nearly $73,000.
In the event Mr. Swartz doesn’t pay for the motel to be demolished, the cost might fall on the taxpayers. Yvonne Podvin, chairwoman of the town of Hounsfield Planning Board, said the town could take ownership of the property if taxes haven’t been paid on it, but it would take time.
“The fact that it could be a danger to the community would speed that up,” Ms. Podvin said. “But it would take time before we can make someone clean that up. It’s caused quite a problem in the last month or so. Every time they get called out, it puts our first responders in danger. It’s something we would like to get cleaned up.”
State police investigators were on the scene around 11 a.m. Friday. A trooper referred all questions to their spokesman, Jack Keller, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Alex Burke, an appraisal aide with the county’s Real Property Tax Services, was also at the burnt motel. He was there collecting data for the town of Hounsfield to prove the structure is a total loss.
“Eventually,” he said, “it’s going to be demolished.”
By the time crews got to the scene Friday morning, the motel was 75 percent engulfed, said Drew Heise, Brownville fire’s assistant chief and the commanding officer of the scene Friday morning.
“There was a larger glow in the sky than usual,” Mr. Heise said.
After minor issues, firefighters connected to water and were spraying the building within 15 minutes. Sackets Harbor and town of Watertown fire departments were also on the scene, and Mr. Heise said he later called for assistance from Henderson and Smithville fire departments.
He said firefighters were in a defensive mode, meaning they didn’t enter the building for most of the morning, instead spraying from outside. He said the fire was controlled after 40 minutes.
Mr. Heise said the first two fires at the motel were determined to be set purposely, and Friday morning’s is suspected to be the same, pending the investigation. No firefighters were injured, but Mr. Heise said he’s constantly worried about what crews will find every time they respond.
“It’s always in the middle of the night,” he said. “Your mind wanders. It goes to a million places when you’re on your way there. I’m worried about my guys and their safety. Maybe someone is still there and wanting to do harm to firefighters. Do they have a gun? Do they have a knife? Stuff like that is a constant worry. As far as resources, if someone got hurt for a bullcrap reason, it would be very frustrating.”
Crews cleared the scene at around 5:20 a.m. but had already been back to fight rekindled flames.
Marcel Morse has lived across the street from the motel for nearly a year. He said he woke up to the flashing lights of emergency trucks.
“I saw everybody out there and I said ‘What in the hell is going on over there now?’” Mr. Morse said. “I don’t know who is doing it, but I wish they would knock it off.”
Claire Hodge is the owner of the Nu Pier Restaurant and Lounge across the street.
“I hope they catch who did it,” she said. “They definitely got it this time, whatever they were trying to do.”