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Daily Pilot

Officials, owner disagree on running of Sandpiper Motel

Officials say Sandpiper is a 'public nuisance' while owner says commission's decisions will put him out of business.

By Bradley Zint

3:48 PM PDT, May 24, 2014

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Mike Lin knows his motel is not the best lodging choice in Costa Mesa.

Customers at the Sandpiper Motel, he said, cannot expect five-star service from a one-star or "no-star" establishment.

After all, the Sandpiper is not, unlike the Westin, within walking distance of the world-renowned South Coast Plaza. It doesn't have a trendy on-site restaurant or temperature-controlled rain forest shower heads like one would find at the Crowne Plaza.

It doesn't even have a pool — a basic amenity of many motels, including the Vagabond Inn off Harbor Boulevard.

"It's not luxury," Lin admitted, standing in the motel's front office. "It's pretty basic."

Next to Lin was Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who on Monday morning took up his offer of a tour. She wanted to see for herself the conditions at the Newport Boulevard motel before making a decision that would affect the business' ability to have several long-term tenants.

Lin took her into the manager's office and apologized for the mess. He soon clarified that, unlike the back office, the front office is kept clean because that's what the customers see.

He pointed up front to the coffee pot and box of pastries. They're free, he noted.

At check-in, the Sandpiper requires photo identification for all its guests, about 80% of whom pay with cash. Lin keeps a photocopy of the IDs for his records.

Lin then took Leece to the second story, down the corridor and inside one of the vacant corner rooms.

"It's like the '60s and '70s," Leece remarked, adding that the decor reminded her of the motels where her family would stay when she was young. The Sandpiper was built in 1959.

While visiting another room, Leece made a closer inspection of the furniture. Though it looked like it had been around a while, it seemed functional — like the motel. "It's nice and clean, but a little old," Lin said.

Leece told Lin that she doesn't think the government should be telling him he needs to update the dressers — a point she would make the following day to her council colleagues.

"It's up to you," she said. "It's your business. The government has no right to tell people to polish furniture."

Lin told her he feels frustrated. City code enforcement officers visited his property several times last year, as they did other motels. The visits generated violations against his business, among them missing or broken window screens, peeling baseboards, mildew, peeling paint, damaged walls, broken door knobs, a dead roach and, in one case, severe hoarding.

The hoarding in Room 139 has since been resolved and the room remodeled. The tenant there, an elderly World War II veteran, found assistance after he left the Sandpiper, where he had lived for about five years.

"One case doesn't make everything seem that we don't care," Lin said.

Lin noted that he has now spent more money fixing Room 139 than he makes from it.

"Hang in there," Leece told him. "You're doing the best you can."

Lin added that he's not sure what's he's doing wrong. He said he would like to change his business, but the market drives his low price and he's meeting that demand.

Lin, owner of the Sandpiper for the past decade, also owns the motel next door, the Travelodge, which doesn't experience the level of problems or code violations that the Sandpiper does.

Lin lives in Costa Mesa's Eastside and has been in the United States for 33 years. He just recently registered to vote.

In his native Taiwan, Lin said, you couldn't trust the government. At first, he thought that wouldn't be the case in America. His views have changed.

"I fear this government," he said, "more than my customers."

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'Public nuisance'

On Tuesday, the following evening, Leece and the other council members heard testimony and debate on the Sandpiper's ability to house long-term tenants who, according to Lin, account for about half the motel's profits. Councilman Gary Monahan recused himself to avoid a conflict of interest. His bar and restaurant are located near the hotel in question.

The roughly three-hour hearing, which began late Tuesday and went clear into Wednesday morning, didn't favor Lin.

The council split 2 to 2, on two votes. Leece and Councilwoman Sandy Genis voted to overturn the Planning Commission's decision from last month, when the panel unanimously agreed that the 44-room Newport Boulevard motel was "operating as a public nuisance" and would need to undergo some changes.

Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger dissented on that motion and then created another to uphold the commission's decision. Leece and Genis dissented during that vote.

According to City Atty. Tom Duarte, the council's split votes upheld the commission's decision. In addition to the nuisance designation, it changed the Sandpiper's operating permit to allow up to 25% of its rooms, or 11, to be used for long-term tenants. The property had been allowed to set aside 19 rooms, or 40%, for that purpose.

The city defines long-term as 28 consecutive days or 28 days within a 60-day period.

Lin sees the change as a major financial blow to his business model.

Evidence presented during the council's hearing echoed much of what was said at the Planning Commission meeting weeks before. Based on a series of city code enforcement inspections in 2013, the Sandpiper was alleged to have many signs of improper maintenance or public health hazards.

Lin's attorney, Allan Calomino, told the council that the city's actions are putting the Sandpiper "on the track to go out of business." He also questioned the validity of the hearing, saying the attack on the motel's ability to house long-term tenants does not directly relate to the violations found at the property, most of which were promptly fixed.

Costa Mesa should not be targeting Lin "when he has demonstrated good faith and fixed the things that were wrong," Calomino said.

Genis also questioned the hearing's purpose, especially considering how much time and effort went into it.

"In the real world, what difference is this gonna make?" she asked, to which city staff replied that the actions are also about getting the Sandpiper property in compliance.

Genis added that, unlike other motels, the Sandpiper is not "a bastion of crime."

"In fact, compared to other motels, it's pretty good," she said.

After hearing city code enforcement say that the Sandpiper is in a fairly typical condition compared to other Costa Mesa motels, she questioned if the Planning Commission's decision could be read to conclude that all the city's motels are operating as "public nuisances."

Righeimer and Mensinger said it was wrong for the Sandpiper to be used for long-term tenants at all. It's a motel, not an apartment, they contended, and it was never designed for such a purpose. Furthermore, the councilmen said, the city shouldn't have to force Lin to complete standard maintenance at his property, like fixing broken bulbs, door knobs and window screens.

Righeimer accused Lin of "taking advantage" of the poor who rely on his motel.

It shouldn't be OK to have people paying $1,500 to $1,600 to live in 300 square feet of space — smaller than a studio apartment, Righeimer argued.

Mensinger noted that Lin's own Travelodge property next door should be an example of how to effectively run the Sandpiper.

As she did during her Sandpiper tour Monday, Leece likened the focus on the motel to the expansion of governmental control over private business.

"The arm of government is reaching in, and it's overreaching," she said.

Righeimer countered that health and safety inspections are "exactly" what the government should be doing, and it has effectively done so in the Sandpiper's case.

"This person is in the lodging business," he said. "And he acts like he's not in the lodging business and doesn't understand the lodging business."

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'Trying to push him out'

In a follow-up interview Friday, Calomino said the Sandpiper's legal defense is not necessarily over.

He disagreed with Duarte's legal opinion that the split votes from the council's de novo hearing actually uphold the Planning Commission's decision.

The true legal reading of the votes, Calomino contended, is "no action."

Furthermore, if Costa Mesa enforces Duarte's assertion and the commission's decision, Calomino said, the Sandpiper will take its case to court.

"If the city wants to enforce it, we will file and rule to get a writ of mandate on the legal position," he said.

Lin's challenge to the city isn't all about the money, Calomino said, because the Sandpiper isn't as profitable as Righeimer asserts. It's not a "multimillion-dollar" business, Calomino said.

The attorney added that it's actually in Lin's best interest to sell the motel, which could be worth $4 million to $6 million because of the value of the land.

Rather, Lin is "very loyal to the people he's dealing with," Calomino said. "Lin is a compassionate person ... he's extremely offended about the developments and the fact that someone's trying to push him out."