Citing conditions ranging from hoarding and vermin infestation to broken window screens, the Costa Mesa Planning Commission on Monday night unanimously agreed that a Newport Boulevard motel has been operating as a public nuisance.
During a series of inspections from May to November, the Sandpiper Motel was found to have various signs of improper maintenance — inoperable smoke detectors, peeling baseboards, water damage and broken tiles — as well as public health hazards, such as mildew and hoarding, according to evidence presented Thursday by city code enforcement staff.
The commission's decision, which followed a nearly three-hour hearing, effectively changed the 44-room motel's operating permit to allow for fewer long-term tenants — those defined in the city code as guests who stay more than 28 consecutive days or 28 days within a 60-day period.
The Sandpiper, 1967 Newport Blvd., can now dedicate 11 rooms, or 25%, to long-term stays. Since 1999, the motel had been allowed to use 19 rooms, or 40%, for long-term tenants.
The five-member body also agreed with the allegation that the Sandpiper's staff was not ensuring regular maintenance of the property, as required by its permit.
The commission's decision follows Mayor Jim Righeimer's call last September that city staff examine the Sandpiper's operating permit, specifically with regard to how people were living there long-term in reputedly deplorable conditions.
Deputy City Atty. Elena Gerli on Monday questioned the Sandpiper's maintenance procedures.
"It is doubtful that these monthly inspections are being conducted," she said, adding that the problems "were ultimately corrected due to the city's insistence and the city's enforcement levels."
City officials did credit the motel's owner, Mike Lin, with quickly fixing most of the violations, which also included an improperly installed water heater, graffiti, peeling paint and damaged walls.
"My reaction from [Lin] is that, 'We'll clean it up as soon as we possibly can,'" said Code Enforcement Officer Jon Neal.
Lin has owned the 44-room motel, built in 1959, for 10 years. He also owns a Travelodge next to the Sandpiper and manages apartments.
Lin's attorney, Allan Calomino, contended that most of the Sandpiper's violations were "cosmetic," not health-related.
Together they do not rise to the level of a public nuisance, he said.
"We've done what you want from a respectable business owner: Comply with the city and make adjustments," Calomino said.
Much of Monday's discussion was centered on one room inhabited by an elderly hoarder. City staff discovered the problem in May and found no improvement during follow-up inspections.
By November, the room was completely renovated, the problems mitigated, Neal said.
The commission questioned Sandpiper management's delay in fixing the room, contending that the hoarding conditions didn't happen overnight and that regular inspections would have avoided them.
"This mess and this hoarding here looks like a very long-term problem," said Commissioner Tim Sesler.
Added Commissioner Colin McCarthy: "I don't understand why it's the city's responsibility for [Lin] to maintain his property."
Officers did not red-tag the room, which would have declared it uninhabitable, because the tenant was attempting to clean it out himself while staying in an adjacent room, Neal said.
Lin said he discovered hoarding there around January 2013. The tenant had been living there for about five years.
"He's an 89-year-old person," Lin said. "We care about him staying there."
Lin and Calomino cited difficulties with the eviction process, including the time frame required to evict the man, which was done by August.
Calomino said the resident was a former attorney, and the Sandpiper was afraid of potential litigation.
Sandpiper employees and Costa Mesa residents spoke in Lin's defense.
Bob Washer, the previous owner, who sold the motel to Lin 10 years ago, called Lin an honorable and hardworking person and a friend who always stops by on his birthdays to give him a present.
"I'm here before you to say this is good man," Washer said. "Give him a chance."
Kathy Esfahani of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition said the commission should consider that motels can be the only option for people who are down on their luck.
"I would invite the Planning Commission to think about what they're doing and ask themselves if this is really a path you want to pursue," Esfahani said.