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Battle Point home blaze was arson

But officials say ‘eco-terrorism’ is not considered a likely factor.

Investigators say a fire that destroyed a $3 million home under construction on Battle Point Drive last Saturday was deliberately set.

“Evidence found during the layer-by-layer dig-out of the site led us to conclude that this was arson,” said Glen Tyrrell, acting chief of the Bainbridge Island Fire Department, adding that those suspicions can’t be confirmed until evidence lab results come back in 30 to 60 days.

Tyrrell declined to comment on specific aspects of the investigation, but did say investigators believe they know where in the home the fire started.

The 5,790-square-foot house – 60 percent complete and unoccupied at the time of the fire – was razed.

There are currently no suspects in the blaze, though Tyrrell did say “eco-terrorism” – acts of destruction intended as a political statements on environmental issues – was not believed to be a factor.

Typical arson investigations involve photo analysis, in which authorities examine heat patterns and damage at different points in the structure as well as the nature of flames during the fire’s early stages.

Tyrrell said locating ignition material is also a key component of such investigations, but declined to say whether any was found at the fire scene.

Jeff Sneller, a real estate investor who moved to the island from California two years ago, owned the house and an adjoining piece of land that has been the subject of recent controversy on a local online site.

City officials say Sneller cleared a wetland on an adjacent parcel last winter to make way for another house. The move drew the ire of environmental advocates, and also sparked speculation about the possibility of eco-terrorism following the blaze.

City Code Enforcement Officer Meghan McKnight said this week that while Sneller was issued a clearing permit by the city last October, he was not authorized to excavate the wetland.

McKnight also said the wetland was not accounted for at the time on the city’s map of the island’s sensitive areas.

The city issued a notice of violation June 13 that would require Sneller to restore the wetland, pending a review set to take place in early July.

Tyrrell said no suspects have yet been identified, saying authorities are still interviewing witnesses and sifting through a “tremendous” amount of information.

Bainbride fire and police, who are leading the investigation, would not need lab results to bring a suspect into custody.

“If we found a person or persons (believed responsible), we would proceed without data from the labs,” Tyrrell said.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, heavily involved during the first three days of the investigation, has since minimized its role, but will continue to be involved “as long as we need them,” Tyrrell said.

Sneller deferred comment to his son, Adam, who recently took over business operations for the Sneller Group.

“Unfortunately, of the several houses my father has built on the island, this was the most aesthetically pleasing,” said the younger Sneller, who visited the ruins shortly after learning of the fire Sunday morning.

Sneller said he’d suspected arson after talking with investigators, but added that he is shocked nonetheless.

He said the house was insured and that they planned to rebuild.

“We had hoped it was an accident,” Sneller said. “But houses don’t just spontaneously combust.

“It’s hard to believe someone would do this on Bainbridge. This is a place where you leave your doors unlocked at night.”

Community Events, April 2014

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