A Whatcom County Superior Court judge has ruled the city can legally condemn the Aloha Motel.
The city took the owners of the motel to court after they did not respond to the city’s $1.3 million offer to buy the property, which City Council named a blight in October.
During a hearing Friday, Feb. 13, Judge Ira Uhrig said the city was right to find the motel, which has gained a reputation as a hub for illegal activity, a blight on the Samish Neighborhood. He said the city could lawfully take it under the public use and necessity requirements laid out in state law.
To condemn the property, the city needed to show the spot had illegal drug activity in the past year, and that the property or building constitutes a threat to public health, safety or welfare.
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For its case, the city, via lawyer Shane Brady, cited numerous police calls to the motel; at least four drug overdoses last year; negative impacts on surrounding business owners who said they regularly find used needles and condoms on their properties; methamphetamine contamination the Whatcom County Health Department found in 11 of the motel’s 28 rooms; and a case that involved a “rotting dead body left in a room for six days that the management knew about but didn’t do anything about.”
The motel had 153 police reports between October 2013 and October 2014, more than any other motel in the area, city data show.
Greg Greenan, a lawyer for Aloha owners Sang and Mi Yi, argued that particular state blight law ( RCW 35.80A.010) was unconstitutional and void as the language, such as “associated with illegal drug activity,” was vague.
Brady disagreed, saying the statute is not vague, and it uses language found in at least 30 other state laws. He noted that the Yis had not addressed the record of criminal activity at the motel that the city presented.
“It appears to me the Yis have conceded that issue,” Brady said. “The Yis haven’t articulated what constitutional rights they have in threatening public health and welfare, and associating with illegal drug activity.”
Before the hearing, Greenan entered a declaration that detailed the history of Samish Way and included a copy of the Samish Way Urban Village Subarea Plan, which dictates what new development along Samish would look like.
He argued that the motel had been singled out for condemnation, in part because the city had identified the property for redevelopment within 5 to 15 years of the 2009 urban village plan, noting that the city intends to sell the land to a private developer after purchasing it through the condemnation process. He argued that would mean the city was condemning the motel for private, not public use.
“The record shows this is clearly not for private use, this was for blight, which is a public use,” Brady said. “This is not a private development case. If it were not for the illegal actions at the motel, we would not be here.”
Greenan argued that by the city’s own data, the Motel 6 down Samish Way had a similar number of police calls during the same time period yet hadn’t been tested for meth contamination the same as the Aloha and nearby Villa Inn had.
“We think this condemnation has everything to do with redevelopment,” Greenan said. “What’s different is it’s a really nice location on Samish Way, right there at the bend. What’s different about the Aloha Motel is it’s frankly the key to redevelopment of Samish Way.”
He went on to argue that under the statute’s provisions, drug houses or anywhere that has had a drug bust could be condemned by the city, specifically by the mayor or the executive authority, with arbitrary or discretionary enforcement.
“This statute is standardless — applying those two standards you could sweep up probably half of Bellingham,” Greenan said. “These are vague terms. Nobody knows what they mean except the executive. They know (the Aloha has) got drugs and dead bodies and all these things and they know they can pick out that one place and go get it, and ignore the rest of the city that’s associated with illegal drug activity.”
Brady said the city had only started talking about the redevelopment of the Aloha Motel this year because the condemnation process was started.
“There is no steamrolling going on here,” Brady said. “Without dispute the Aloha Motel is sucking the life out of the Samish Way Neighborhood beyond any other motel on that block. It’s really the worst kind of defense to say everywhere else is just as bad, and I would ask the court not to entertain that.”
Uhrig said he finds himself regularly in agreement with the founders of the United States, including with the idea that the government should be kept in check and should secure for all the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“I think in this case, the evidence submitted is the property has been a blight on the neighborhood,” Uhrig said. “There are frequent activities that involve violation of the law ... endangering the life, liberty and the opportunities to exercise freedoms of the other residents of the neighborhood and the community in general.”
He ruled the city was entitled to condemn the property and that the statute was constitutional.
Greenan said he always respects the court’s decision, and the Yis have an appeal process available to them. Immediately following the hearing, he said the Yis hadn’t decided what their next action would be.
A jury trial could decide what would constitute just compensation for the property, Brady said.