York, Sehome neighborhoods cheer Aloha Motel condemnation

Lisa and Cory Anderson’s home, garage and shed have been broken into a number of times during the past three years. Tools have been stolen from their shed, gasoline drained from their vehicles, and metal art sculptures taken from their yard.

At their home a block or so from the Aloha Motel, they’ve seen prostitution on a side street, picked up needles thrown into their yard, called police about the drug deals they’ve witnessed in front of their house, and had drug dealers try to intimidate them. When Cory Anderson confronted two men cutting and pulling electrical copper wire that ran along the fence to lighting in their backyard, one threatened to shiv him.

“It makes us more resolved to get things cleaned up,” said Lisa Anderson, who is on the board of the York Neighborhood Association. “People have to be involved and say ‘no,’ otherwise this whole neighborhood will go down the hill. We love Bellingham and we love living in the York neighborhood. We knew we had to get involved because we couldn’t just sit back and expect somebody else to fix it.”

The Andersons, along with other members of the York and Sehome neighborhood associations, didn’t sit back. Now, they’re cheering Mayor Kelli Linville and the Bellingham City Council for moving forward with condemnation proceedings against the Aloha Motel on North Samish Way, because it has long been a hub of crime and drug activity.

The case has been up to a year in the making and is part of an overall plan to clean up Samish Way and deal with other problem motels in the area, officials have said.

“I feel this is just the start to address the problems along Samish Way. There is still more work to be done,” Lisa Anderson said.

Both neighborhoods border the Aloha and some of the other motels on Samish Way that have required a high number of responses from the Bellingham Police Department — including the top three of 153 at the Aloha, 151 at Motel 6 and 111 at the Villa Inn from October of last year to October 2014, according to police data.

Area residents have seen crime bleed into their neighborhoods, including a string of burglaries in 2013 that spurred them to deal with the degradation of Samish Way.

“Closing the Aloha isn’t going to shut the whole thing down. We still have a lot of work to do. We’re moving forward and we’re setting an example,” said Kay Reddell, who is on the crime task force for the Sehome Neighborhood Association.

“I think it’s a message. I hope it’s a message to those other owners,” Reddell said of the city’s actions against the Aloha.

Jean Hamilton, president of the Sehome Neighborhood Association, has lived in her neighborhood since 1976. She had felt safe in all that time.

“I’ve never had anybody even check my door to see if it was unlocked. I can leave things outside and never worry about them. Other than a couple of car prowls this has been an extremely safe neighborhood,” Hamilton said.

Then, in quick succession, a number of homes in both neighborhoods were burglarized in 2013.

“That was sort of a wake-up call,” Hamilton said.

While Hamilton’s home wasn’t among those broken into, Reddell’s was. Police told them it likely was the work of a burglary ring centered on the Samish Way area.

“The neighborhood said, ‘Well, OK. What can we do about that area?’ ” Hamilton said.

In January, representatives from both neighborhoods met and brainstormed.

They asked police for neighborhood crime statistics that teased out the parts that had to do with criminal activity along Samish Way to show how much of the city’s resources were being used on those properties. They met with city officials and the police. They met with Pastor Rick Qualls as part of a coalition that formed to help adults and families who were a step away from homelessness and living in some of the run-down motels on Samish Way.

Neighborhood association members said they wanted solutions to the crime and to the health issues — 11 rooms at the Aloha and nine at the Villa Inn have been closed because of methamphetamine contamination. But they didn’t want the problems pushed into another neighborhood or criminal activity simply shifting to another motel. And they wanted people who weren’t criminals to be helped.

“We pushed and we pushed. And they listened,” Reddell said of the city.

Neighbors praised the city and police.

“We are very happy that our mayor, City Council and city departments have taken this issue very seriously and have taken steps toward making our neighborhoods safe and a desirable place to raise a family again,” Lisa Anderson said. “Our Bellingham Police Department and our officers also should receive recognition for the great work that they have contributed toward addressing issues along Samish Way.”

While Sehome Neighborhood Association members were galvanized by the burglary ring, Bellingham Police Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said it “was only one factor of many” that caused police to focus on the area.

“The corridor has been steadily declining.” he said. “A number of business owners and neighborhood residents have worked hard to slow, or turn around, the decline. The mayor’s office, police, public works and neighborhood representatives have continued to apply effort to this issue.”

Neighborhood associations said they’re not done.

“We still want to keep the pressure on,” Reddell said. “The Aloha was only one small piece.”

Lisa Anderson agreed, saying that when York and Sehome neighborhood associations “joined together in January, we felt this would be a five-year project.”

“We still have other motels along Samish Way that are also a blight for the neighborhoods and the city,” Anderson said. “I hope this action is a good wake-up call for some of the other motels that allow the prostitution and drug activity to reside and thrive at their businesses. The city and the neighborhoods will not tolerate this ongoing activity and the negative impacts on our neighborhoods.”