2015-02-06 / Front Page

City to combat ‘disorderly’ motels

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen was elected the to the city council in 2012, the very first call she received from a constituent, she said, was from a resident of Noyes Street.

The caller was concerned about the management of the nearby Super 8 motel and was not alone in that regard, as Cohen quickly learned when she paid a visit to the person’s home.

“I met with the entire street that day,” Cohen recalled at a Jan. 26 workshop session of the city council.

Concerns about the motel came to a head five months later when Cohen joined her peers in denying an offer from its management company to purchase three abutting lots owned by the city, totaling 2.26 acres. Upset over repeated police calls to the hotel, and with reports of long-term residents there already wandering into their yards late at night, the residents wanted the city to keep the vacant lots as a sort of buffer zone between their homes and the motel.

At the time, Police Chief Ed Googins reported his officers had gone to the motel 37 times during the first five months of 2013, for incidents ranging from drug abuse to prostitution. That was up from 68 calls in all of 2012, which by itself seemed a staggering number to city councilors.

Less then three weeks later, the city served a series of eviction notices at the Super 8 because one of its buildings lacked both an occupancy permit and a working fire alarm system. Although no one should have been staying in the “300 building” at the motel complex anyway, the evictions served to highlight complaints made at the earlier council meeting about conditions at the buildings on site that were permitted for use. Allegedly, residents shared the building with a family — and by some accounts an entire colony, of raccoons.

On Dec. 31, 2013, East Coast Hospitality Inc. sold the Super 8 to NK’s Hospitality LLC for $1.33 million. It now operates as a Quality Inn. Even so, the change in ownership did not slow city efforts to control what then- Mayor Jerry Jalbert called “a neighborhood in decline.”

Throughout 2014 the council debated the creation of a new zoning district dubbed the Thornton Heights Commercial District. Although some of imputes for that was possible development of a Dunkin’ Donuts on the site of the former St. John’s Church — ultimately blocked by creation of a Main Street Community Commercial District zone — city officials made no bones about the rationale behind the Thornton Heights zone. City Planner Tex Hauser said at the time that density and design requirements of the propose zone were designed to prod the many Main Street motels into a new era of mixed-use development.

In December, the council tabled consideration of the zone indefinitely, while a new proposal unveiled Jan. 26 took more direct aim at the motel issue.

If adopted, the ordinance update would take the granting and renewal of lodging establishment licenses off the city clerk’s desk and place them before the city council, in a process not unlike that used for granting liquor licenses.

In considering license renewals, the council would be able to take into consideration activity at hotels and motels that generate police visits, and, on the recommendation of Police Chief Ed Googins, could compel employee attendance at a training class a condition of granting the license.

Those classes, which teach motel managers how to deal with disruptive guests according to state and local law, are already offered by the police department, Googins said. However, the new rule would require that licensee principals, as well as day and nightshift managers, take the class within six months of a license renewal.

According to City Attorney Sally Daggett, the ordinance can’t single out any of the Main Street motels. If the council is going to inject itself into the licensing process of any one lodging establishment in the city, it must consider all 16.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, his staff did not propose an ordinance similar to the “disorderly house” rules adopted in 2011 for rental units, despite the reported success of that ordinance in stemming disruptive activity at certain trouble spots, out of fear motels would stop calling for police assistance. Any decision to grant a lodging license or not would not be based simply on the number of police calls to a motel or hotel, he said. The idea, he said, is simply to expose the licensing of motels and hotels to a more public process.

Meanwhile, Googins said it would “over burden” his department to require training of staff at all 16 motels and hotels, rather than just the ones he might suggest.

Current licenses for all 16 lodging establishments in South Portland are due for renewal by May 31. In order for any ordinance change to be effective by that deadline, any new process must be adopted by the city council at least 20 days before current are slated for renewal by the city clerk’s office.

That lent some urgency to the Jan. 26 council proceedings. However, a majority of the board deemed the new licensing process, as proposed, not ready for prime time.

“South Portland has been around for 120 years. Why all of a sudden now do we need this language?” asked Councilor Tom Blake. “It really punishes a businesses. We should be going in the opposite direction. We don’t need more laws, we need better communication.

Sending these problems to us is, I think, not the way to go. We have qualified, trained staff who should be able to deal with these problems,” Blake said.

Daggett agreed rules are already in place that enable the city to pull or deny a lodging license for cause. However, the new process would be, in effect, the city’s way of communicating that a problem exists, she said.

Blake was the only councilor to openly object to the proposed change. Most everyone else on the council seemed to feel the problem is that the new rules, as currently written, don’t go far enough.

While Blake pointed out that the Main Street motels were, from the 1930s to the 1950s, “the mainstay of the South Portland economy,” Councilor Claude Morgan said remembrance of a golden era should not be a brake on council action.

“I don’t have a problem tweaking our ordinances and codes to reflect changes that are taking place in our society,” he said, “and this particular cluster of hotels that we are talking about, let’s put it on the table, we are contemplating this because we have a problem that is diminishing the value of an entire neighborhood. It’s kind of obvious to us something needs to be done.

“I don’t have any particular problem with adding an extra layer to the onion in our code of ordinances,” Morgan said. “If anything, I don’t think it goes far enough. It seems weak, it doesn’t give us the sweeping power to come in and hit the reset button.”

“I don’t feel it’s tough enough,” agreed Councilor Brad Fox. “I don’t necessarily see how this training is going to change anything. I don’t see why, if we have so many complaints against a particular establishment, why we can’t just deal with that. If people are afraid in that neighborhood because of the constant arrests, or people taking their children at the bus stop, something should be done.”

Three motel owners spoke about the proposal. All supported the education and training component, although they questioned a public hearing process for license renewals on motels.

“My biggest concern as a motel proprietor is that establishments that are not breaking any laws will be as risk of losing their license because sometimes unsubstantiated complaints made by individuals with their own personal agenda may be used to influence the renewal of a license, especially at open meetings of the city council,” said Evanthea Spanos, who owns Pine Haven Motel at 857 Main St. “I think it’s very hard to substantiate what some people say.”

But even with proprietor support, most councilors continued to suggest education alone might not solve the problem.

“Just requiring somebody to do some training is not really the same as sitting down and coming up with an action plan on how to address issues or move forward,” said Councilor Melissa Linscott. “They could go through the training, but what’s the follow-up after that, to make sure issues are actually addressed?”

Others said it was at least a step in the right direction.

“For me, not to take an action when these things may be happening in our city, it makes me feel like I’m not doing my job,” said Councilor Patti Smith, referring to Googins assertion that human trafficking is among the crimes currently occurring in some of the Main Street motels.

“To not do anything tonight just feels wrong,” she said. “This is a way to start to address the problem in a positive, proactive fashion. This can encourage people to be better citizens, to be watchdogs, to make us better city.”

That brought things back to Cohen, who, as mayor, had the prerogative to reserve for herself the final word.

“I look at this as a tool the police department can use, but I agree it does not go far enough,” she said. “Whenever one neighbor negatively impacts another neighbor, that’s not a good thing, and sometimes the city has to step in. If there is anything we can do to make things better, we should.”

That said, Cohen, a long-time city clerk herself, suggested a better process might be to empower the clerk’s office with greater authority to conduct hearings to revoke lodging licenses, rather than bringing every renewal before the city council.

“I think there’s teeth to the ordinance already, but if you want more, we can add more,” Daggett said.

Following a second pass by Daggett, the proposal to overhaul how lodging licenses are renewed will return to the council, possible as soon as its next workshop.

“I don’t think any of us want to drag this out. I think we’d like to deal with this as soon as possible,” Cohen said.

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