The Bucksport Town Council on Thursday voted unanimously to order all tenants of the former Spring Fountain Motel to vacate the premises within 48 hours, and gave the owner of the property 90 days to fix deficiencies that town officials say make the property unsafe.
For more than two years, the town has been pressuring owners and managers at the Route 1 property, which now offers rooms for long-term rent, to address myriad life-safety issues at the property including inadequate plumbing and electricity, a non-functioning central heating system, and smoke detectors that don’t work.
Prior to the vote on Thursday, Bucksport Code Enforcement Officer Luke Chiavelli told the council that Central Maine Power had shut off all electricity to the property earlier in the day, and that the building’s main water supply was expected to be shut off on Friday, April 9. It was not clear why the utilities were being shut off and owner Asad Khaqan, who spoke to the council by phone, said he was unaware it was happening.
“I think it’s a terrible lack of responsibility,” council member Paul Bissonnette said during Thursday night’s public hearing, at which the council decided to label the motel a “dangerous building.”
Chiavelli said that the problems date at least to December 2018, before he started as the town’s code enforcement officer, when the motel applied for an innkeeper’s license. When the town inspected the property, officials found that the furnace wasn’t working properly and the boiler room did not meet fire safety requirements. It lacked fireproof doors that would help prevent or slow the spread of flames though the building, for example.
Some sinks emptied into buckets that tenants dumped into bathtubs when they got full, and many tenants were using portable heaters without automatic safety shutoffs to stay warm, he said. Not all the outlets worked, and many were overloaded. Many rooms had mold and mildew, he added.
Since these issues first came to light, Chiavelli said, 804 days have passed with little to no effort to make the needed repairs. The motel staff has tried at times on their own, but they lack the skill and resources to bring the property up to standards.
“It is clear they have no intention of doing so,” Chiavelli said of Khaqan and others who may own or manage the property.
Khaqan, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, told councilors during the hearing that the last time he visited the property was in early 2020, prior to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He suggested that Chiavelli was biased against him and his employees, and said he knows the building needs repairs.
He said that many of the tenants — who have recently included up to 30 families, according to town officials — have been unable to pay their rent, and that emergency pandemic orders from the state prevent him from evicting anyone.
“These things do need to be done, I understand,” he told the council. “I really want to take care of this situation. I’m here to solve this.”
The council, noting the shutdown of utilities to the property, said Khaqan has had ample time to fix the problems and that they had to act quickly to protect the tenants.
After consulting with town attorney Phil Saucier, who participated in the council’s remote video meeting, the council issued an order telling all tenants that they have to be out of the property by Saturday evening. The order also mandates that Khaqan begin substantial improvements to the motel within 30 days, and that they be substantially completed within 90 days. The council gave Chiavelli the authority to extend the 90-day deadline if he felt that good progress was being made and Khaqan had shown good faith to complete the improvements.
Saucier said that, having deemed the building to be dangerous, the town is allowed under state law to step in and make improvements to the property on its own if Khaqan continues to let problems linger. If the town does this, it can attach a lien on the property to recover its costs in making improvements, Saucier said.
The property has come under scrutiny several times in recent years, and not just because of the poor living conditions.
It caught fire in March 2014, though no injuries were reported. Two years ago, a former manager was charged with assaulting children at the inn and, in a separate incident, a resident was arrested there in the 2017 killing of a child elsewhere in Bucksport.