Sandpiper Motel, Costa Mesa

The Sandpiper Motel sits next to Newport Boulevard and the 55 Freeway in Costa Mesa. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / May 7, 2013)

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Second story in an occasional series about Costa Mesa's troubled motels.

On a typical weekend evening at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, kids scamper through the labyrinthine courtyard as pairs of neighbors lean on walkway railings, smoking and chatting in the fading light.

Potted plants sit on window sills and on air conditioning units mounted on the stucco walls. Colorful, makeshift curtains cover windows.

Inside one of the rooms, the odor from decades of people smoking cigarettes wafts from the carpet with each step and then lingers in the generic floral bedspread. A faucet in another room squeaks. A broken window above the room's flaking shower allows in music from the parking lot outside.

The room is missing its "means of egress" sign — the one that would show a way out of the complex.

Costa Mesa city and police officials, as well as advocates who help the homeless, are looking for their own egress of sorts — a way out of the motel troubles that have drained city resources for years.

As scrutiny of Costa Mesa's spending has intensified, so has heat directed at the city's 12 so-called problem motels, a term that critics dismiss as insensitive to the struggling people who call them home.

City leaders, who say they want to help the poor who are actually from Costa Mesa, have taken a strong stance against the establishments, which they see as sucking up police and emergency service providers' time.

Council members have said cleaning up the motels is at the top of their to-do list.

"What are cities supposed to provide? They're supposed to provide services," said Steve Mensinger, Costa Mesa's mayor pro tem. "If services are being impaired because of a particular business' use, government has an obligation" to step in.

Still, the question remains: How?

It's one that has bedeviled some of Orange County's biggest cities for decades, as motels that once drew tourists have slowly morphed into overstuffed de facto low-income housing, filling a countywide void.

The answer for Costa Mesa could be a combination of salves — some modeled on strategies taken up by other cities, some a bit more novel.

Ultimately, Mensinger said, Costa Mesa is taking what he called "a more holistic approach as opposed to just code enforcement only."

The conventional process of issuing notice after notice of code violations, giving proprietors a grace period to correct problems before they must pay fines, isn't working, he said.

So, he said, "what we're going to do is look at the best way to charge the max amount of money to recover our cost when a motel goes beyond what is considered normal."

In the works are efforts to cut down on that grace period for repeat code offenders and develop strategies for holding motel operators accountable for the resources drawn by motel guests and residents that are beyond standard levels — among other measures.

These are aimed at convincing operators to, as Mensinger put it, "contribute to our community in the right way."

"Our approach is, if you want to be a motel that appeals to visitors to the community, just like any business, and be a part of the fabric of our city, that's great," he said.

"If you want to collect cash and serve as a way-stop for parolees, that's something else."