SOUTH PORTLAND — Two low-budget motels on Route 1 that face imminent shutdown for alleged illegal activity filed a lawsuit Friday to overturn the City Council’s action.

Their attorney, David Lourie, is seeking a temporary restraining order to keep The Knights Inn and the Maine Motel open beyond May 31 – the date that their lodging establishment licenses will expire because the council refused to renew them.

The Maine Motel on Route 1 in South Portland Staff photo by Ben McCanna

In the lawsuit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, Lourie claims that the council’s action against the Main Street motels and the city ordinance on which it was based are discriminatory and unconstitutional.

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

“(The owners) have challenged the validity of the denial of their license renewal applications, as well as the constitutionality of the ordinance relied upon in denying renewal of (their licenses),” Lourie said in court papers.

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,” Lourie said.

The Knights Inn on Route 1 in South Portland Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Last week, 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.

Then, on Tuesday, the council, without discussion, voted unanimously to approve so-called “findings of fact” regarding repeated “calls for service” to police that were the basis for denying the license renewals.

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.

Lourie 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.”

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

City Manager Scott Morelli said Friday that South Portland officials weren’t surprised by Lourie’s court action.

“Nor will we be (surprised) if a judge allows the motels to operate after June 1st while the matter is decided in court,” Morelli said. “(The) council’s actions on behalf of the community are sound and we have a strong case.”

Mayor Linda Cohan, who leads the council, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

While the motels are on Route 1, they 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.

The council acted on a rare recommendation from Police Chief Ed Googins, who asked that the licenses be denied or conditions be imposed on the businesses. South Portland’s chief for 24 years, Googins said it was the first time he recommended that a lodging establishment license not be renewed.

At the same time, the council approved 15 other lodging establishment licenses that were recommended for renewal, including the nearby Howard Johnson and Best Western Merry Manor Inn. Each hotel or motel is reviewed annually by police, fire and health officials.

According to the findings of fact, Googins testified last week that he was especially concerned about the prostitution incidents at The Knights Inn, where a neighbor and a person working in the area reported the activity to police, not the motel’s owner or employees.

Googins also questioned “the lack of candor of The Knights Inn staff in dealing with the Police Department generally (and) their apparent obliviousness to the prostitution activity.”

At both motels, it was unclear whether the management “was naïve about incidents of criminal activity taking place on the premises, was knowingly turning a blind eye to the activity, or was complicit in the activity,” the findings of fact concluded. “The fact that this type of criminal activity occurred on the premises represents at least lax – if not improper – management of the (motels), as well as a disregard for the protection of the traveling public’s safety and welfare.”

Googins sought to impose conditions on the motels, including installing video surveillance in public areas and having motel employees attend police training to identify and report potential criminal activity.

Googins said the motel owners attended a training session May 15 and said they wanted to work with police.

Lourie told the council Tuesday that the owners wanted to abide by the conditions, including the installation of video cameras.

One resident, former councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, urged the council to reconsider the nonrenewals, calling it an inhuman and punitive action that would leave the owners’ families homeless and without the means to make a living.

City Attorney Sally Daggett told the council it could reconsider the nonrenewals at its next regular meeting June 5, but no councilors indicated an interest in pushing for reconsideration.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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