A judge lobbied for compromise Friday between South Portland officials and the two low-budget motels on Route 1 that they’ve acted to close for alleged repeated incidents of illegal activity in the last year.

The owners of The Knights Inn and the Maine Motel filed a lawsuit last week in Cumberland County Superior Court seeking to overturn the City Council’s recent decision not to renew their lodging establishment licenses, which expired Thursday.

Justice Thomas Warren questioned the validity of the council’s action based on what he described as single incidents of prostitution and drug-related activity.

Warren urged the council and the motels’ owners to agree to conditions that would allow the businesses to remain open.

“I think that’s better than putting them out of business,” Warren said.

Warren stayed the council’s closure of the two motels and delayed taking further action on the case until he has time to fully review recently submitted court records.

Sally Daggett, the city’s attorney, said it would be up to the council to decide whether a compromise on possible conditions of operation was in order. The council has until its regular meeting Tuesday to reconsider its closure action.

Daggett noted that David Lourie, the motels’ lawyer, told councilors on the evening that they decided to pull the motels’ operating licenses that the owners were unwilling to abide by any special conditions.

Lourie told the judge Friday that the owners had already complied with suggested conditions that they install video surveillance cameras in public areas and have staff attend police training sessions to help them identify and report possible illegal activity.

While Lourie disputed the city’s right to hold the motels’ owners accountable for their patrons’ actions, Daggett said state law and local ordinances require innkeepers to pay attention to what’s happening on their premises and not allow nuisance or criminal activity.

Warren questioned whether that was a reasonable expectation given the frequency of drug-related arrests at local hotels, suggesting that it might lead to widespread closures.

Warren issued an order Tuesday prohibiting the closures until he could hear preliminary facts of the case Friday and act on the motel owners’ request for a temporary restraining order.

The city filed its response to the lawsuit Thursday.

The council decided May 15 not to renew the operating licenses because of several incidents of alleged prostitution or drug-related activity at the family-owned-and-operated motels.

The council voted 5-2 and 7-0, respectively, not to renew licenses for The Knights Inn, at 634 Main St., owned by Kantilal Patel, and the Maine Motel, at 606 Main St., owned by Ibrahim Dhamdachhawala.

In the lawsuit filed by Lourie, the owners claim that the council’s action against the Main Street motels and the city ordinance on which it was based are discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Lourie also argued that without a judge’s swift intervention, “the owners will suffer immediate and irreparable harm, as they will be required to cancel reservations and shut down their motels, or they risk enforcement and penalties for operating without a city license.”

The judge agreed Friday that the potential untold loss of income might constitute irreparable harm, but he questioned whether anyone has a constitutional right to operate a motel.

The owner-occupied motels are in the center of Thornton Heights, a residential neighborhood on the west side of South Portland, where homeowners increasingly have asked the city to respond to their concerns.

In so-called “findings of fact” that the council unanimously approved on May 22, Daggett, the city attorney, recounted the testimony and rare closure recommendations of Police Chief Ed Googins that prompted the council’s action.

The findings focused on two prostitution incidents at The Knights Inn – one that resulted in an arrest – and three overdoses and a SWAT team drug raid at the Maine Motel. One of the overdoses resulted in a death and four people were arrested in the drug raid.

Googins sought to impose conditions on the motels, asking them to install video surveillance in public areas and undergo police training to identify and report potential criminal activity. Both Googins and Lourie have said that the owners had indicated they wanted to abide by the conditions.

City officials said the repeated calls for police service triggered a city ordinance that allows operating licenses to be denied, suspended or revoked for repeats of incidents such as breaches of the peace, disorderly conduct and other violations of law by anyone on the premises.

Lourie has asked the court to overturn the council’s action “so as not to hold the owners responsible for unproven conduct or events merely appearing in police incident reports, of which (the owners) have no prior knowledge and have no control.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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