Town officials question motel tenancy

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NORWAY — The safety of long-term guests at the Inn Town Motel could be jeopardized by the lack of local oversight and regulation.

Concern over the Inn Town Motel came to the attention of Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman last week when police approached her about guests who are staying for long times at the motel. Police discovered one man had been living at the motel since October after he made numerous calls to police for assistance.

The issue sparked a discussion among local officials about safety.

EMERGENCY — Police and PACE ambulance respond to one of numerous calls at the Inn Town Motel on Wednesday, Feb. 10, made by a long-term guest of the establishment.
EMERGENCY — Police and PACE ambulance respond to one of numerous calls at the Inn Town Motel on Wednesday, Feb. 10, made by a long-term guest of the establishment.

Fire Chief Dennis Yates told the Norway Planning Board last week that the owners of the Inn Town Motel, located at 58 Paris St., will have to improve fire safety measures, particularly if it intends to continue to have long-term guests.

The question of whether the motel’s long-term tenancies redefine the establishment as a rooming house must first be answered.

With 34 units  in two buildings, the potential for at least 64 people to be housed in unsafe conditions is a real possibility, officials say. If the motel can be redefined as a rooming house, it would come under the Norway Rental Occupancy Ordinance and therefore able to be better regulated locally.

The Inn Town Motel, built in 1989, has been owned by a succession of owners, most recently by the OM Shiv Shakti Corporation, which purchased the motel in 2008 for $246,000.

The president of the corporation is named Malay Patel – a resident of Lowell, Mass. – according to records in the Secretary of State’s Corporation Division. The record also indicates that the residence of the corporation’s treasurer – Harshad Patel – is 58 Paris St., Norway, the Inn Town Motel.

 

Repeated calls to the motel’s local and 800 number by the Advertiser Democrat for a comment went unanswered over a period of days. No answering machine or recording kicked in on either phone number.

Currently, Norway has a rental occupancy ordinance on the books, which was approved by voters June 18, 2012, and requires stricter standards for housing inspections. Voters OK’d the updates after major problems in local Section 8 rental units were exposed in Advertiser Democrat award-winning investigative reports in 2011 and subsequent action by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the ordinance, stricter annual health and life safety inspection standards of rental units by the local code enforcement officer were imposed. The ordinance allows the code enforcement officer to issue, enforce or revoke occupancy permits. Fines for violations have also been increased.

The previous process, which was written in 1993, allowed landlords to essentially check off a list of items and turn it in to the town, instead of having a building inspector look over the building.

The ordinance has been successfully used since its enactment to prohibit occupancy of apartments that pose life and safety violations.

The problem is, the local ordinance does not cover hotel or motel units, officials said. It defines a motel or hotel as “premises that are rented for overnight or several nights rather than weekly or longer.”

Therein lies the dilemma. The Inn Town Motel is renting rooms not just for days, but for months.

Corey-Whitman said her research indicates that if an establishment has 16 units or more, it is considered a motel or hotel. Otherwise it is a rooming house.

The 2009 National Fire Protection Agency, Life Safety Code 101, as adopted by the state, backs up the definition in terms of its safety requirements.

According to the code, “a building or group of buildings under the same management in which there are sleeping accommodations for more than 16 persons and primarily used by transients for lodging with or without meals,” is a motel/hotel, inn, club or bed and breakfast.

The code defines a rooming house generally as “buildings that provide sleeping accommodations for 16 or fewer persons on either a transient or permanent basis, with or without meals, but without separate cooking facilities for individual occupants.”

Corey-Whitman said she uses the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) Life Safety Code during her inspections of rental units, which currently do not have to register with the town so there is no count of how many actually exist in Norway.

Corey-Whitman said she and Yates inspect rentals routinely and if a single-family home is converted to a multi-unit and a site plan review goes before the planning board, she said.

Fire safety

Yates said it is clear that if the Inn Town Motel continues to provide lodging for long-term guests, certain life and safety issues must be addressed to ensure the motel guests’ safety in case of a fire.

In the case of the local motel, Yates said the establishment should have someone on call 24 hours to report a fire. Because the Inn Town Motel is two separate buildings, Yates suggested the best scenario would be a person in each of the buildings that make up the 32 units in case a fire had to be reported.

Additionally, two wire fences erected to keep motorists from driving through from Tucker Street to Paris Street as a shortcut, need to be removed. If that is not done, the fire department’s equipment, including an 80,000-pound ladder truck, would be unable to get through quickly to the buildings if there is a fire.

It is unclear how the long-term guest is cooking food in his unit, as there are no kitchenettes, but it is believed he is using a hot plate, perhaps on top of a credenza – another fire hazard, officials said.

Further, Yates said, even though each unit is hardwired for a smoke alarm, they are not interconnected and the rooms do not have carbon monoxide alarms.

There also must be two means of egress from every room if the building is protected throughout by an approved automatic sprinkler system and meets all other requirements of NFPA.

Corey-Whitman said she and Yates, along with the state Fire Marshall, are researching the commercial building codes and NFPA Life Safety Code to make sure all safety measures they can enforce is being done.

State-wide issue

Concern about the life safety and health issues at the Inn Town Motel is a problem facing officials in other cities and towns that cater to tourist populations in the warm weather and rent out their rooms on a longer-term basis during the winter to fill the financial gap.

But knowing what motels are doing can be tricky.

In Portland, landlords had until Jan. 1 to register residential rented apartment units, rented houses or rented rooms with the city’s newly formed Housing Safety Office. This includes motels and hotels.

The registry is intended to improve the city’s tracking of safety issues, and is part of an ordinance enacted last year by the City Council after a 2014 fire on Noyes Street killed six people, forcing the city to find better ways to ensure the safety of thousands who rent housing in the city.

Landlords pay a $35 per unit/room registration fee to cover the cost of the citywide rental inspection program. There is a $100 a day fine for each unregistered unit.

City officials were reportedly not aware the Noyes Street house was being used as a rooming house.  At that time, it would have required the building to get city approval as a rooming house and provide additional fire protection measures, such as alarms with strobe lights, sprinklers and a pull-handle alert system. Officials believed it was a two-family house.

Previously, Portland landlords were required to sign onto a rental registry and get a license, but, according to reports in the Portland Press Herald after the Noyes Street fire, the 1989 rental registry ordinance was rarely enforced and there was no proactive housing inspection program that would reveal unlicensed rooming houses. Nor were there emergency contacts listed.

Since the Noyes Street fire, things have changed.

According to the City of Portland’s Housing Safety Office website, the city defines a residential rental unit as a rented apartment, house, condominium or rented individual room and they are all responsible for adhering to the city’s rental registry.

In Portland, a rental can be for any length of time including with a written leased residential rental or month-to-month residential rental; short-term rental such as summer vacation rental or winter rental; overnight lodging and casual rental, such as online rental and irregular room or apartment rental, states the ordinance.

Overnight lodging where the state has issued a food service license and as a result has inspected the property for life-safety is exempt from registering.

Statewide, cities and towns without local ordinances such as Portland has, face a more gray area when it comes to rental units, according to lawyers at Pine Tree Legal.

The organization, which provides free legal help to Maine people with low incomes, says on its website that although Maine law is fairly clear on many tenant issues, the laws are less clear about the rights of people who live in motels, hotels and rooming houses.

Lawyers for the organization say the question of tenancy – whether you live in a rooming house, a motel or lodging house for extended periods of time – is not well defined.

But a number of issues can help determine whether a person is a guest or a tenant, organization officials say. Some of the criteria include, for example, whether the motel owner provides clean sheets and towels, has access to rooms and cleaning rooms and signs guests in and out in a registry.

Other criteria include the length of the stay and how long others in the building have lived there, the availability of on-site kitchen facilities and the terms of a written agreement if there is one.

Norway Planning Board Chairman Dennis Gray has suggested that officials begin a dialog with selectmen so that safety issues such as cooking in the motel units, can be addressed.

Meanwhile, Corey-Whitman said she, Yates and the state Fire Marshall will continue to look into the issue to ensure that all safety issues are addressed at the Inn Town Motel.

Corey-Whitman said she will also seek guidance from city officials in places like South Portland and Scarborough where motels are routinely rented out as long-term housing in the winter.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net

State cites Inn Town Motel

NORWAY — Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention inspection reports indicate the Inn Town Motel in Norway has been cited for numerous health and safety violations, ranging from unclean toilet facilities to torn and soiled bedding, over the last five years.

According to inspection reports issued by the state, regular and surprise inspections turned up what they called noncritical violations under the state’s lodging code.

  • On Nov. 1, 2011, the state inspector cited the motel for violations including a dirty ice machine and unclean toilet facilities. A toilet in one room was cited for being unclean, another needed a new toilet seat and the shower mats were in disrepair and vent fans need cleaning. Furniture, fixtures, carpets and other accessories were not clean. Another room was cited as dusty with food debris on the floor, by the refrigerator and under beds.
  • On Oct. 14, 2014, another inspector cited four violations – all noncritical – including the need for a new toilet seat, lack of available safety data sheets, unshielded lights in the laundry room and unclean sleeping rooms.
  • Another inspection dated Oct. 24, 2014, based on a guest complaint, indicated more violations, including unclean furniture, fixtures, torn and soiled bedding, mattress sheets and pillowcases that were being used by guests.
  •  The report cited a “torn and stained” bedspread, hair was found on sheets and blankets, mattress cover and mattresses, and two chairs were “stained.” Hair in the tub, unclean bathroom floor and other violations were cited. A follow-up inspection a month later showed there were still four violations, including unacceptable plumbing.

While the inspector noted the violations were of a noncritical status, the designation appears to be in conflict Department of Health and Human Services 2003 regulations on some of the violations.

According to the DHHS requirements, sheets and pillow cases, when provided by the hotel must be clean.

“In no case shall sheets or pillow cases, after once being used by any guest, be used for or by another guest without having been thoroughly cleaned,” according to the regulations. A violation is considered critical under DHHS regulations.

“Any torn and/or soiled bedding, mattresses, sheets or pillow cases shall not be used,” according to another critical violation in the DHHS regulations.

Customers of the establishment apparently agree with the findings.

A review of comments posted on Google Reviews show a number of guests at the Inn Town Motel were not happy with the accommodations.

“Gross bedding, filthy bathroom, and a serious flea infestation to top it off,” wrote one guest.

“Do not go here! The place is horrible. They do not wash the bedding between customers! Hairs in the bed! Bathroom had hairs all over it. Chairs looked like someone puked on them!” wrote another.

“The sheets were stained and rather nasty,” wrote a third.

No one could be reached at the motel for comment.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net