Commentary: It's time to improve troubled motels

We as a city are doing everything in our power to turn our problem motels into good neighbors. For far too long, we've allowed a dozen motels along Newport and Harbor boulevards to operate in a manner at odds with the community good.

The motels — which once provided inexpensive but decent family lodging for those traveling to Orange County for the beach and Disneyland — often house shady characters, including parolees, drug addicts and prostitutes, who commit crimes in our city and put an incredible strain on our public safety resources.

For instance, last year our police officers and firefighters responded 497 times to the 236-bed Costa Mesa Motor Inn. Nearly 500 calls to a single motel!

We, as a city, have had enough. Our code enforcement officers are making regular checks on each motel room to make sure the owners are adhering to basic health-and-safety standards. A recent inspection of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn resulted in 400 citations and $40,000 in fines for infractions that included cockroach infestation and faulty or missing smoke alarms.

I've attended several of these motel inspections, and the conditions in many of the rooms would turn your stomach.

Two of the city's motels — the Costa Mesa Motor Inn and the Sandpiper Motel — have been given conditional use permits to allow up to 40% of their rooms to be used for long-term stays (more than 30 days). I've asked the Planning Commission to consider revoking these two conditional use permits and provide options for reducing the city's maximum percentage for long-term stays at all motel downward from the 25% standard now in place.

As we consider this, we need to figure out a way to not hurt model motels like the Residence Inn, whose business model relies on a significant number of long-term stays. We also don't want to cause hardships to those currently in long-term stays in Costa Mesa motels.

So I suggest an attrition model that allows for current long-term motel guests to continue to stay as long as they want to until they find other housing. No one would be forced to move, but as people find alternative housing, those rooms would no longer be used for long-term stays.

At same the time, we need to put a stop to our problem motels functioning as de facto flophouses for an unsavory element that contributes significantly to crime in our city and puts a strain on our public safety resources.

We need to return these motels to their original purpose: providing short stays for vacationers and visitors to our great city.

JIM RIGHEIMER is the mayor of Costa Mesa.

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