SOUTH PORTLAND — Two low-budget motels on Route 1 that face imminent shutdown for alleged illegal activity filed a lawsuit Friday to overturn the City Council’s action.
Their attorney, David Lourie, is seeking a temporary restraining order to keep The Knights Inn and the Maine Motel open beyond May 31 – the date their lodging establishment licenses will run out because the council refused to renew them.
In the lawsuit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, Lourie claims the council’s action and the city ordinance on which it was based are discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The council decided May 15 not to renew the operating licenses because of several incidents of alleged prostitution or drug-related activity at the family-owned-and-operated motels.
“The owners have challenged the validity of the denial of their license renewal applications, as well as the constitutionality of the ordinance relied upon in denying renew of (their licenses),” Lourie said in court papers. “In the absence of temporary injunctive relief, the owners will suffer immediate and irreparable harm, as they will be required to cancel reservations and shut down their motels, or they risk enforcement and penalties for operating without a city license after May 31.”
Last week, the council voted 5-2 and 7-0, respectively, not to renew licenses for The Knights Inn, at 634 Main St., owned by Kantilal Patel, and the Maine Motel, at 606 Main St., owned by Ibrahim Dhamdachhawala.
Then on Tuesday, the council, without discussion, voted unanimously to approve so-called “findings of fact” regarding repeated “calls for service” to police that were the basis for denying the license renewals.
The findings focused on two prostitution incidents at The Knights Inn – one that resulted in an arrest – and three overdoses and a drug raid at the Maine Motel. One of the overdoses resulted in a death and four people were arrested in the drug raid.
Lourie asked the court to overturn the council’s action “so as not to hold (the owners) responsible for unproven conduct or events merely appearing in police incident reports, of which (the owners) have no prior knowledge and have no control.”
While the motels are on Route 1, they are in the center of Thornton Heights, a residential neighborhood on the west side of South Portland, where homeowners increasingly have asked the city to respond their concerns.
The council acted on a rare recommendation from Police Chief Ed Googins, who asked that the licenses be denied or conditions be imposed on the businesses. Chief for 24 years, Googins said it was first time he recommended that a lodging establishment license not be renewed.
At the same time, the council approved 15 other lodging establishment licenses that were recommended for renewal, including the nearby Howard Johnson and Best Western Merry Manor Inn. Each hotel or motel is reviewed annually by police, fire and health officials.
According to the findings of fact, Googins testified last week that he was especially concerned about the prostitution incidents at The Knights Inn, where it was a neighbor and a person working in the area who reported the activity to police, not the motel’s owner or employees.
Googins also questioned “the lack of candor of The Knights Inn staff in dealing with the Police Department generally (and) their apparent obliviousness to the prostitution activity.”
At both motels, it was unclear whether the management “was naïve about incidents of criminal activity taking place on the premises, was knowingly turning a blind eye to the activity, or was complicit in the activity,” the findings of fact concluded. “The fact that this type of criminal activity occurred on the premises represents at least lax – if not improper – management of the (motels), as well as a disregard for the protection of the traveling public’s safety and welfare.”
City officials said the repeated calls for service at the owner-occupied motels violated a city ordinance that allows revocation or nonrenewal of operating licenses for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.
Googins sought to impose conditions on the motels, including installing video surveillance in public areas and having motel employees attend police training to identify and report potential criminal activity.
Googins said the motel owners attended a training session May 15 and said they wanted to work with police.
Lourie told the council Tuesday that the owners wanted to abide by the conditions, including the installation of video cameras.
One resident, former councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, urged the council to reconsider the nonrenewals, calling it an inhuman and punitive action that would leave the owners’ families homeless and without the means to make a living.
Asked by Mayor Linda Cohen, City Attorney Sally Daggett said the council could reconsider the nonrenewals at its next regular meeting in June.
No councilor indicated an interest in pushing for reconsideration.
This story will be updated.