2018-06-08 / Community

Fate of Main Street motels remains in flux

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In a May 29 interview at the Knights Inn, motel owner Kantilal Patel was asked what he and his wife might do if the South Portland City Council’s refusal to renew his lodging license should withstand a court challenge. The motel is not only the couple’s business, it is their home of 33 years.

Before he could answer his attention was diverted by his wife Ranjan, who, upon hearing the question, struggled to stem a surge of silent sobs. Getting up from the couch, she crossed past Patel’s place at the dining room table, as if by the movement of her legs she might distract herself from the welled-up tears. But as she stood over the kitchen sink, holding a hand to her quivering lip while dabbing lightly at her nose, the effort at last proved too much. The dam burst. The flood came. The interview was over.

“I don’t know,” Patel said. “I do not know.”

On Tuesday, June 5, the Patels got a reprieve of sorts. At least a temporary one. Following a 45-minute meeting behind closed doors with city attorney Sally Daggett, the council voted unanimously to waive a standing rule preventing action on items not on the meeting agenda, and voted, again unanimously, to reconsider its May 15 vote against Patel’s establishment, located at 634 Main St., as well as a similar punitive action taken May 15 against the owners of the nearby Maine Motel at 606 Main St.

The decisions were rendered at the recommendation of Police Chief Ed Googins, who cited repeated instances of crime at both establishments, including drug trafficking and prostitution, engaged in by motel guests.

The reconsideration, Daggett said, allows the city to participate in a court-ordered settlement conference on June 14, and to take subsequent action depending on the outcome of those talks.

Following the May 15 council votes, and a May 22 vote to approve “findings of fact” supporting the action, Cape Elizabeth attorney David Lourie filed suit May 25 in Cumberland County Superior Court. The filing included the request for a temporary restraining order, allowing the motels to stay open past June 1, when their existing licenses were due to expire.

On June 1 Justice Thomas Warren granted the stay on closure, and urged the city and motel owners to seek compromise.

“If there were conditions (for license renewal) that the city could be comfortable with, and which Mr. Lourie’s clients could be comfortable with, above and beyond the two he has said they are already willing to do, then the notion that they should be put out of business in the meantime doesn’t strike me as particularly appropriate or fair,” Warren said.

According to Daggett, the June 14 settlement conference will be held before a different judge.

Following the council votes to reconsider the May 15 actions, Councilor Claude Morgan asked leave of his peers to participate in future debate and voting on the motels.

“Allegations have been made complaining that I am too biased or predisposed to vote objectively,” Morgan said. “I would like to tell the council that I have taken every step to act in good faith. I have been objective. I have evaluated the facts as they are. I have indeed worn my quasi-judicial cap and I take that responsibility very seriously.”

The council ruled unanimously that Morgan would not have to recuse himself from future consideration of the motels.

The possibility that Morgan might have had it in for the motels from the beginning was raised by Lourie, and stems from comments Morgan made at a Feb. 13 council meeting, at which the South Portland Housing Authority presented plans to redevelop the former St. John’s Church property, located directly across Route 1 from Maine Motel.

Several residents of the Thirlmere Avenue neighborhood behind the former church objected to the housing authority's plan for a four story, 42-unit building in place of the church, and asked the council to reject the zoning change required to make it happen. A housing complex that large, they claimed, was sure to attract crime in numbers similar to those perceived to occur at the motels.

Morgan, who sided with residents, made no attempt to hide his even greater disdain for the motel management.

“I would give you this zoning (change request) and then some if this project was built almost directly across the street right on top of one of those motels,” he told the housing authority officials. “I’d give you the keys to the city if you’d build it on top of both of those motels.”

Patel, 68, said the belief among many that his business is a hotbed for crime and corruption is a misperception. Yes, police are at his motel often, but that’s partly because they routinely check his registration cards, just as they often check in on pawn shops. In many ways, he said that’s a good thing. He runs a budget motel, one that caters to working class guests and that can mean a greater likelihood of a bad element.

“The police coming here all the time, checking my registrations, I do not consider that harassment. No, I welcome it,” he said.

Sometimes the police will find among Patel’s guests someone who has an outstanding warrant. The thing the public should keep in mind, he said, is that not is a police visit to his property not an indication of any wrongdoing or mismanagement, even an actual arrest is something for which he should be held blameless. If somebody is picked up at the Knights Inn on an outstanding warrant, whatever crime was committed happened elsewhere, he said.

Patel emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1980 and has long since become a citizen.

“I live here in this country, I want to be of this country,” he said. “I am going to live here the rest of my life. I just work hard to try and have a good retirement.”

Patel moved to South Portland in 1985 to manage the 29-room Knights Inn, then owned by his brother. He bought the business in 2000.

“We do not rent to those kind of people, if we see them, but we cannot judge at all times that the person who comes to check in is a prostitute or a drug user, or whatever,” Patel said. “Once in a while someone sneaks in who is like that, but what has happened is only one or two incidents. We certainly do not have prostitutes here every day, or every week, or every month.

“We do not want those kind of people in out motel, but we cannot catch everyone at check in or monitor them in their rooms,” Patel said. “It is true, I am quiet. I keep to myself mostly. I am not involved in things much. But I live here, in this city, in this building. This is my home. We do not want any crime here.”

At the Maine Motel, it’s the same story for the Dhamdachhawala family – also immigrants from India and also now U.S. citizens. The only difference is that, in their case, the business that is also their home houses a family of 12, including six children from newborn to age 11.

“They say that we are bad owners, that we do not care about any crime that might happen here. This I cannot understand,” Juned Dhamdachhawala said. “My children live here. My little girl rides her bike around the parking lot. Of course I do not want crime, or drugs, or for a bad girl to come in a room.

“We try our best to run this place, but you cannot read somebody’s mind,” his brother Javed said. “You do not know always what kind of person someone is, and you cannot know they have drugs on them they may use without searching them, which we can not do, of course. If we do suspect someone is doing something bad, we do always ask them to leave the next day. We say we’re are sorry, we cannot have you again.”

“We try to run a good business,” said Javed and Juned’s sister, Jarina Kathawala, who owns Pine Haven Motel. “We do not want crime or bad things here. We are members of this community. Our children go to Kaler and Skillin (elementary schools). I would invite any neighbors who think we do not care about South Portland to please, come visit us.”

Lourie, in documents that support his recommendation to essentially shut down the two family-run motel businesses, Googins produced one report showing 53 police calls to the Maine Motel between May 3, 2017 and this past March 12. However, the vast majority of those calls (19) were for traffic stops and crashes that just happened to take place in the vicinity of the motel. Other calls included everything animal complaints and serving court papers to motel residents – some guests, including otherwise homeless people placed by the city of Portland stay on a weekly basis – to dealing with drunks and “general disturbances.” More concerning were four drug-related incidents, circled on the report by Googins. These included the overdose death of a 38-year-old male on July 10, 2017.

The report for the Knights Inn, owned by Kantilal Patel, shows 51 incidents during the same time period, but again traffic stops made near the inn and other routine issues, like people refusing to leave the motel when asked, made of the bulk of the reports, although there were a few domestic disputes calls. However, in this case Googins circled two arrests for prostitution, on June 20, 2017, and on Jan. 27.

Googins said his recommendations for non-renewal were the first such steps made in his 24-year tenure with the city. Although there were “many minor situations” at both motels, Googins said, each saw “probably half a dozen to a dozen” calls that he deemed “serious or concerning.”

“That’s the nature of the business and the clientele that frequent these establishments,” he said. “But my concern is around prostitution and drugs.

“The prostitution activity that we became aware of, they were oblivious to it in the motel,” Googins said. “Their lack of, if you will, paying attention to what’s going on, when we have a resident spotting that activity and reporting it to us, that’s a problem. When there’s a problem, we don’t want the neighbors to call us, we want them to call us.”

In his filings, Lourie calls the city action discriminatory and unconstitutional, saying the city has a duty to issue the state lodging license if all statutory requirements are met.

The motel owners, he said, should not be held responsible “for unproven conduct or events merely appearing in police incident reports, of which they have no prior knowledge and have no control.”

Lourie has called a local ordinance that gives the council an ability to withhold a license renewal based on repeated police calls “a cockamamie thing,” suggesting it will not hold up under legal scrutiny, especially given what he calls “a very limited number” of actual police incidents at either motel, and given that the owners were not capable of complicit in any alleged crimes that did occur.

Javen Dhamdachhawala meanwhile, said he has already complied with Googin’s request for additional security cameras, recently installing nine on top of the four he had in place previously. He suggests that Googins or someone else from the police department should have come to him with any concerns, and suggestions.

“I am happy to comply. We will do whatever they ask, absolutely,” he said. “But this all came as a very big surprise to us.”

Dhamdachhawala said he had no idea there was any issue, or that his annual license renewal would be anything other than the standard practice it has always been, not until getting notice in early April in the mail along with his renewal application.

But by then, Googins had already alerted the city clerk in a March 29 letter, saying he would advise the council against renewing the lodging license.

“We were given no warning and not opportunity to do anything until the decision had been made against us already,” he said. “And now we are all very small faced. We are afraid we are going to be out on the street with our children and we do not know what we are going to do.”

Return to top