Bellingham City Council could condemn Aloha Motel at Oct. 27 meeting

The front of the Aloha Motel on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014 located at 315 N. Samish Way in Bellingham. The city of Bellingham is pursuing condemning the blighted property. "The Aloha has had many crime and drug issues, as have several hotels in the area," Police Chief Cliff Cook said. "We will continue to prioritize resources into the area until the environment changes."
The front of the Aloha Motel on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014 located at 315 N. Samish Way in Bellingham. The city of Bellingham is pursuing condemning the blighted property. "The Aloha has had many crime and drug issues, as have several hotels in the area," Police Chief Cliff Cook said. "We will continue to prioritize resources into the area until the environment changes." THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

As soon as Oct. 27, Bellingham City Council could approve condemning the Aloha Motel for posing a threat to public safety and being home to illegal activity.

Just more than a month after Mayor Kelli Linville announced the city’s intent to pursue condemnation of the Samish Way motel, city staff plan to present council with a resolution declaring the property a blight. Council also will look at an ordinance that would allow the city to start eminent domain proceedings to take the property, City Attorney Peter Ruffatto said.

The owners of the property, Sang T and Mi Sun Yi, as well as anyone who would like to say anything before a vote, can give their opinion on the planned condemnation during the regular public comment section of the 7 p.m. council meeting on the 27th. Commenters are given three minutes each and may speak only one time during the comment period.

“It’s not a public hearing but the opportunity for the landowner to speak in public comment to offer their opinions and testimony,” Ruffatto said.

If the proposals pass, the city would start the process of shutting down the property and negotiating the fair market value of the land to be paid to the owners if a Whatcom County Superior Court judge sides with the city, Ruffatto said.

The action has been several months to a year in the making, as city police, firefighters and Whatcom County Health Department staff built a case against the motel one drug bust, overdose, death and contaminated room at a time.

To condemn the property under state law, the city must show the spot has had illegal drug activity in the past year, and that the property or building constitutes a threat to public health, safety or welfare. In the last two months the motel had two deaths, two confirmed drug overdoses and several drug-related arrests, according to city officials.

Of the motel’s 28 rooms, 10 have been tested for methamphetamine contamination in recent months. All 10 came back positive for residue from meth being smoked inside, ranging from several times the cleanup standard to one space that was hundreds of times above acceptable standards, according to the health department. Whatcom County requires cleanup if tests show levels of 0.1 microgram or more per 100 square centimeters.

In other cases when the city looks at properties that might need to be condemned, the issues are typically resolved in talks with the landowner before things get to the point where an ordinance is needed, Ruffatto said.

At this point, the Yis would need to contest the city’s action to change the process for the Aloha, Ruffatto said.

Greg Greenan, lawyer for the Yis, said he and his clients would wait to comment on the process until the Oct. 27 council meeting.

“We’re considering all our options at this point,” Greenan said in an Oct. 10, interview.

City staff expects to have an appraisal of the property before the meeting. That could allow council to talk about the potential purchase price the city might need to pay to get the property at 301 and 315 N. Samish Way for fair market value.

The first phase of an environmental study of the property also could be done by Oct. 27 or shortly thereafter, Ruffatto said.

Previous condemnation success

A decade ago, the city started nearly the same process with two properties that sit on either side of East Holly Street where it intersects Railroad Avenue.

In December 2000, City Council voted to condemn the then-Flame Tavern, a crumbling brick building built in the 1890s that had been empty for more than 15 years.

At first the building’s owner and agent asked the city for more time, but just before the city took its condemnation suit to trial in Superior Court, the owners sold the property to a private developer in July 2001.

By November 2001 the building was torn to the ground, and by December crews had poured foundation for the new building at 201 and 203 E. Holly St. and 1306 Railroad Ave. Currently the new building is home to The Pita Pit restaurant and apartments.

Two years after the council voted to condemn The Flame, then-Mayor Mark Asmundson helped bring another condemnation resolution before the council, this time for the Bellingham Inn.

Located just across the street from The Flame, the inn had earned a reputation for drug deals and prostitution.

Bellingham Police conducted a three-month undercover investigation of downtown drug dealing in summer 2002 and arrested a number of alleged crack cocaine dealers using the Bellingham Inn to conduct business, according to a resolution declaring the premises a blight that was passed by the council in November 2002.

Unlike with The Flame, the Bellingham Inn’s case was filed in court after the owners Lisa and Ron Woo countered the city’s lawsuit with a claim the city hurt their business.

In June 2004 the city settled with the Woos, agreeing to spend $400,000 in drug-forfeiture money to help renovate the inn into apartments after it was clear the city could not afford to condemn and buy the building. No court proceedings took place before the settlement was reached, and both the city and the Woos dropped their suits.

As part of the agreement, the city waived some development fees and granted a 10-year property tax exemption for the residential part of the project as long as the owners closed the motel and remodeled the property within a year of getting permits.

By December 2005, the first residents had moved into apartments that stand where the inn used to at 202 E. Holly St. The building now is also home to Bob’s Burgers & Brew and other businesses.

City would seek developer

The city doesn’t necessarily have a plan for the Aloha property yet, but staff members have started thinking about redevelopment, said Tara Sundin of the Planning and Community Development department.

“We want to move as swiftly as possible on this property, so if we do end up acquiring it, we can deal with the buildings,” Sundin said. “We don’t want the buildings to become or continue to be a nuisance, which can happen if a property is vacant for a long period of time.”

If the city buys the land, the intention is to tear down the buildings and see if a developer wants to work on the site, Sundin said.

“This property (would) be made available through a public and competitive process,” Sundin said.

Staff will recommend the city use housing levy funds to buy the property.

“The city has funds set aside for just this — the acquisition of property for affordable housing development,” Sundin said. “That doesn’t necessarily limit what council does with the property in the future.”

Any new building would need to follow the Samish Way Urban Village Plan and include a commercial use on the ground floor.