Barre motel’s inspection raises questions for city officialsMark Collier / Staff Photo
Officials claim the Budget Inn on North Main Street in Barre is being used as an apartment building. One man has been living there for seven years, they say.
BARRE — A routine inspection at a local motel uncovered a violation of a never-enforced provision of the city’s zoning ordinance — one that prohibits rooms designed as “temporary living and sleeping accommodations” from being turned into what officials claim are undersized and ill-equipped apartments.
This one could get interesting, and not just because officials allege at least one resident of the Budget Inn has been staying there for seven years, or another, who briefly testified before the Development Review Board late last week, insisted the inn’s affordable rates are the only thing standing between him and homelessness.
Mike Miller, the city’s director of planning, zoning and inspection services, is viewing the Budget Inn’s pending appeal as a precedent-setting case for Barre — one he freely concedes will force the city to look for another lawyer if it extends beyond the local review board, and maybe even if it doesn’t.
That’s because City Attorney Oliver Twombly owns the former Central Hotel — now Downtown Rentals — and could soon find himself in the same boat as Budget Inn owner David Singh.
According to Miller, the likelihood that Downtown Rentals also runs afoul of his interpretation of the local zoning ordinances has been the subject of discussions at City Hall, Twombly’s conflict of interest has been noted and he won’t represent the city if it needs a lawyer in the case.
“We’re going to have to hire somebody other than Oliver (Twombly) because Oliver would clearly have a conflict,” Miller said Friday.
The city’s need for legal assistance may come sooner than anticipated because Singh recently hired Barre attorney Brooke Dingledine to represent him in his pending appeal before the Development Review Board — a signal that it may not be the last word in the matter.
Dingledine immediately requested a one-month continuance in order to familiarize herself with a case that stems from a January inspection of the North Main Street motel. Dingledine and Singh both skipped Thursday’s scheduled hearing and the requested continuance was granted by the board.
Though Miller believes he is right, the case could turn on the definitions of words like “primarily” and “transient,” which both appear in the pertinent section of the city’s regulations, as well as his opinion that a 30-day continuous stay at a motel creates a landlord-tenant relationship even though there is no reference to that timeframe in the local ordinance.
There probably should be, according to Miller, who said that is one of the reasons why the city hasn’t started slapping Singh with fines, while forcing him to bring the Budget Inn into compliance by booting out some of the people who stay there.
“There’s no sense in evicting people and then finding out, ‘Oops, the city was wrong’” he said. “You can’t ‘un-evict’ people.”
It’s also why Miller has chosen to hold off on issuing notices of violation to others, Twombly included, who own hotels and motels in Barre.
“We’re going to wait until we get a decision on this case before we move forward to send out a few more letters and knock on a few more doors,” he said, describing the Budget Inn as something of a test case to make sure the city is “on solid legal ground.”
“We’re going to have to go after them all once we know what we’re doing is legal (and) our interpretations are correct,” Miller said.
In his written notice of appeal, Singh took issue with Miller’s interpretation of an ordinance that defines a motel as a structure that: “... contains sleeping and living accommodations used primarily for transient occupancy to the general public on a daily basis for compensation.”
Singh argued that “primarily” doesn’t mean “exclusively” and “transient” isn’t defined anywhere in an ordinance that was rewritten in 2010 — creating a new classification and regulations for “extended stay hotels and motels.”
Those regulations require the installation of kitchenettes in motel rooms that would be occupied by the same person for more than 30 days, and specifically limit the length of stay to no more than 180 days in any 365-day period.
According to Miller, that means the person city officials claim has been living at the Budget Inn for seven years and the man who told board members Thursday night that he has been staying there for seven months because he has nowhere else to go would be asked to move if the city wins.
“They’re no longer ‘transient,’ they’re now ‘permanent,’” he said. “That’s basically the argument we’re making is that: you’re not providing ‘transient accommodations,’ you’re providing an apartment, and if you’re going to provide an apartment you need to meet apartment regulations.”
Though that section of the ordinance was rewritten just three years ago, in part based on an acknowledgement that local hotels and motels were providing housing for extended periods of time, it has never been enforced. Miller said there is a simple reason he decided to start with the Budget Inn.
“They got caught,” he said.
Miller doesn’t dispute Singh’s claim that the practice is common for motels and hotels in Barre and beyond, but maintains the city has a right to set stricter standards, which he believes it has.
According to Miller, the 30-day language was borrowed from state law, though he conceded it would probably be possible to meet the letter, if not the spirit, of the regulation by leaving for a day, a weekend, or even a day each month.
“At least in that situation the rooms would be cleaned in the interim,” he said. “The issue now is people who live there seven years don’t get their room cleaned.”
That isn’t a zoning problem, but the city’s fire marshal and its deputy fire chief attended Thursday’s meeting prepared to present photographic evidence involving the conditions that were found during the motel inspection.
Some board members were eager to hear what they had to say, but were told that would be inappropriate in the absence of Singh and his lawyer.
The board will hear Singh’s appeal at its April 4 meeting.
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