Bellingham to buy Aloha Motel for $1.58 million, raze it

The Aloha Motel on Samish Way in Bellingham is shown Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The city has agreed with the owners to buy the condemned, drug-contaminated property for $1.58 million and raze it.
The Aloha Motel on Samish Way in Bellingham is shown Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The city has agreed with the owners to buy the condemned, drug-contaminated property for $1.58 million and raze it. The Bellingham Herald

The city and the owners of the Aloha Motel have agreed on a price for the condemned, drug-contaminated property.

The City Council approved a settlement Monday, July 27, in which the city will purchase the 1.5-acre property at 315 N. Samish Way for $1.58 million. The sale is expected to close on Sept. 1, and the city will take over the property on that day.

County assessor’s records show the hotel’s owners, Sang and Mi Yi, purchased the property for $1.4 million in 2007. The two didn’t respond to an earlier offer from the city to buy the land for $1.3 million.

The owners have verbally agreed to the latest settlement amount and signed an agreement, city senior planner Darby Cowles said.

The settlement amounted to fair market for just the land — $24 per square foot, Cowles said. The two sides agreed to dismiss the current lawsuit over the property, and the city will not pay the attorney’s fees for the owners.

“This has been a long process,” Mayor Kelli Linville said in a prepared statement. “I appreciate the work done by our legal and planning and community development department staff to reach a deal and bring closure to this chapter.”

The motel will be demolished some time this fall, and the city will seek proposals from developers later this year for ways to redevelop the property.

For now, the purchase will be paid for by the city’s low-income housing fund, but that doesn’t mean that the property will be used for low-income housing projects, Cowles said.

“That’s not been the plan ever, really,” Cowles said. “That’s definitely one of the options.”

If a developer’s plan doesn’t include low-income housing, and the city approves it, the city would need to repay the low-income housing fund, ideally with the money made by selling the property, Cowles said.

There is nothing in the settlement that requires the motel to close before Sept. 1, Cowles said, but the owners planned to start winding down business.

In addition to working with the owners’ lawyer to craft a notice letting people staying at the motel know they need to leave, the city is coordinating with social services to make sure anyone who needs shelter gets connected with available resources.

Motel’s closure not cure-all

To condemn the property under state law, the city had to show the spot had illegal drug activity in the past year and that the property or building constituted a threat to public health, safety or welfare. The city also was required to pay fair market value for the property.

The city took a similar tack in condemning the property as it had when it worked to shut down the Bellingham Inn, which used to stand at 202 E. Holly St. The building is now home to Bob’s Burgers & Brew, other businesses and apartments.

Leading up to the Aloha case, the city cited a litany of health and safety issues: a case in 2014 where a dead body was “left in a room for six days that the management knew about but didn’t do anything about,” at least four drug overdoses in 2014, negative impacts on surrounding business owners who said they regularly find used needles and condoms on their properties, and condemnation of at least 11 of the motel’s 28 rooms due to methamphetamine contamination.

City data showed that between October 2013 and October 2014, the Aloha had 153 police reports. The Motel 6 at 3701 Byron Ave. had the next highest number of total reports at motels in that area, with 151. Villa Inn came in third, with 111 reports. By comparison, the Best Western Lakeway Inn had 43 reports; the Days Inn, which neighbors the Aloha, had 38; and the Coachman Inn had 32.

The motel was officially labeled a blight on the Samish neighborhood by City Council Oct. 27, 2014.

Neighbors responded to news of this year’s settlement with mixed emotions.

Sterling Fisher, who owns Sterling Automotive, which sits across Samish Way from the Aloha, said he was glad the city had cracked down on the drug and criminal activity at the motel, and had seen a serious drop in that behavior since the city started building its court case for condemnation.

However, Fisher said he thought the plan had been to help the less fortunate get back on their feet, and wasn’t sure what message the city was sending by shutting the motel for drug activity when one legal recreational marijuana shop is already operating on the block and another is under construction.

“I guess weed is now legal here, but it bewilders me. It’s very surprising to me we are encouraging further mind-altering situations here,” Fisher said. “I’m not judging. I’m saying if our intention is to clean up an area, it would seem to me that that is the wrong element to be encouraging down here.”

Cowles said the marijuana stores are permitted under state and city codes, and short of a moratorium on such activity, the city couldn’t have restricted that type of use.

“The city didn’t solicit that use there, but it was allowed by state and city zoning regulations,” she said.

Fisher said he would feel the same way if someone were to propose opening a liquor store in the area, which has several other budget motels.

At least one of them, the Villa Inn, had eight rooms test positive for meth contamination in the last year. All eight of the contaminated rooms have been gutted and cleaned up to safe levels, and are open for use again, said Jeff Hegedus, environmental health supervisor for Whatcom County.

York Neighborhood Association President Lisa Anderson, one of many community members who called on the city to clean up Samish Way, said she was relieved the issue had been settled, but there is still work to do.

“It’s been a long time coming, but I’m pretty thrilled that we can see this chapter close as far as eliminating the blight that has plagued our neighborhoods, Sehome and York, and the city,” Anderson said. “Hopefully we can turn this into a positive, which can hopefully spread to neighboring properties.”

Specifically, the same type of criminal activity found at the Aloha will need to be stopped, Anderson said.

“I hope that some of the neighboring hotels that do have a lot of drug activity on their property have a little wake-up call to clean up, because it’s not going to be tolerated,” Anderson said. “I feel happy, and relieved, and I know we still have a lot of work.”

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.