Morristown police are still investigating who or what caused two fires roughly six hours apart on July 3, one of which caused significant smoke damage to a 24-unit apartment building nearing completion in the heart of the downtown.
State fire investigators were unable to determine what caused the fire in one of the rooms of the Village Center apartments on Hutchins Street. But, according to Morristown police chief Jason Luneau, his department is proceeding as if someone was responsible for the fire.
“Due to the fact that the state police arson investigation team is ruling it to be undetermined, we cannot rule out human factor at this point, so we are conducting a criminal investigation,” Luneau said.
The Hutchins Street fire was called in around 8:20 a.m. on July 3 and firefighters from three departments were able to get it knocked back quickly without it spreading to other nearby buildings or without anyone being hurt. No one lives in the building yet and the workers were not on site that day.
Luneau said the department is also investigating a dumpster fire at the Charlmont restaurant that was reported six hours earlier. The dumpster, full of cardboard, was self-contained but its cause remains a mystery.
Luneau did not say whether police think the two fires were related but is asking anyone who saw anything suspicious around the time of the fires — around 2 a.m. at the Charlmont and around 8 a.m. on Hutchins Street — to call police. He did not disclose whether police have a person of interest in either fire.
He said the restaurant does not have security cameras, but the bank attached to the same building does, and police are working with bank staff to try and catch a clue. Similarly, police are speaking with local businesses in the downtown near the site of the Village Center fire and asking for their permission to view any video footage they may have.
“That’s all part of the investigation, just collecting evidence,” Luneau said.
For the developers of the much-anticipated Village Center Apartments, the fire was a major setback. It’s still a question of how many steps back they’ll have to take.
Jim Lovinsky, executive director of Lamoille Housing Partnership, said the insurance company is conducting its own investigation, and he didn’t have a timeline this week for when that would be completed. Even though actual fire damage was contained to a small corner of the building, Lovinsky said there was a lot of smoke damage — none of the 24 units in the multi-story structure had their front doors installed yet, so the smoke was able to billow through almost the entire building.
“It was so far along,” he said. “Now we have to reset our schedule, and there are questions like can we get all of our contractors back and if there are things like cabinetry to replace, are we going to be able to get that?”
Originally, the partnership had hoped to start leasing out apartments by Oct. 1. Lovinsky said last month at a housing summit that the partnership had more than 530 applications for just seven available units across its entire inventory — not counting the Village Center units, the partnership has roughly 300 units across the greater , in Hardwick, Morristown, Johnson, Jeffersonville and Stowe.
In the meantime, workers are still able to keep busy with sitework surrounding the building such as sidewalk and roadway improvements.
The partnership also its eye on plenty of “pipeline projects,” but Lovinsky said they are far from announcing those future homes.
Lovinsky said his phone and email inboxes have been full with well-wishers. Kerrie Lohr, the partnership’s advancement and communications director, said “it isn’t clear just yet if there are any gaps in needs” specifically for the Village Center Apartments, but said there are plenty of ways of supporting the organization “with their time, talent or financial support.”
To learn more, visit, lamoillehousing.org.