NEW PORT RICHEY – The evening wasn’t going to conclude with a final decision, as City Council decided it needed more time to discuss sweeping changes to the way motels operate along the U.S. 19-Gulf Coast Highway corridor.
Council spent about an hour of its Jan. 15 regular meeting hearing from owners and operators of city motels and discussing a proposed ordinance aimed at keeping properties from operating as short-term transient lodging.
In the end, council voted 5-0 to temporarily table the discussion and hold a workshop at City Hall. No date was selected but holding the workshop during the Feb. 19 council meeting was suggested.
The motels are not a new topic of discussion for city leaders. Staff forwarded the ordinance to City Council for consideration after the Land Development Review Board recommended its approval on Dec. 13.
According to the meeting’s agenda, the code amendment would make motels and transient residential lodging facilities ineligible to operate in the city’s Highway Commercial Zoning District.
The city provided definitions for hotels, motels and transient lodging facilities. Hotels have more than 25 units with rooms having access from interior hallways and specific access points.
Motels have guest rooms accessible from exterior hallways, walks or other areas or provide parking areas for vehicles within 50 feet of guest room doors.
Transient housing is the leasing or letting of rooms in any facility that does not contain a full kitchen to people who typically do not have another primary residence.
Language in the ordinance states that an establishment would be in violation if 20 percent or more of its total rooms are occupied by people staying 28 consecutive days or 28 total days in any 60-day period.
The amendment also forbids occupants to store or keep any items outside on hallway or walkway areas.
Motels considered to be in violation of the code amendment would have about three years, until Dec. 31, 2021, to comply if enacted.
The Jan. 15 discussion represented the ordinance’s first reading. Any ordinance must go through the first- and second-reading process, with an official vote coming at the end of the second.
After hearing from owners and operators of potentially affected lodging facilities, council members decided the ordinance and its language deserved to be revisited prior to its second reading during the next regular meeting on Feb. 5.
Councilman Jeff Starkey, one of the ordinance’s more adamant supporters, said temporarily delaying the issue to allow more direct discussion between the city and business owners is acceptable but continuing to avoid the topic is not.
“I’m OK tabling, but I don’t want to kick this can down the road,” Starkey said. “I’ve been up here complaining about this for almost six years.
Acknowledging that the ordinance would be a “big deal,” Starkey said, “We’re changing the way you operate your business, I get that. So, I don’t think we need to rush into it and vote tonight and try to get it on the agenda two weeks from now and get it on a second reading.
“However, it’s something that needs to be addressed and as long as I’m up here it will be addressed.”
Owners and operators of the Quality Inn and Suites Conference Center, 5316 U.S. 19 N., and River Side Inn, 7631 U.S. 19 N., were among those present and speaking during this month’s meeting. They stated a willingness to work with the city and an understanding of council’s concern, but feared the ordinance’s language, as is, would put them out of business.
The city’s ordinance takes aim at rundown, derelict motels housing long-term occupants. Planning and Development Director George Romagnoli provided background information, stating that the city found lodging records of people living in some of motels for years.
“These rooms do not have cooking facilities, but people cook in them,” Romagnoli said. “Sometimes these rooms have four or five people, including children, which creates unhealthy living environments.”
Business owners present at the meeting said they are taking steps to spruce up unsatisfactory conditions but that some stipulations, such as the 20-percent occupancy rule regarding stays longer than 28 days, are too restrictive. Many people who stay for longer periods of time, they stated, are temporary laborers, such as construction workers, businesspeople, new residents waiting to move into permanent housing, or people forced to evacuate after natural disasters.
“Portions of it we do absolutely agree with, it’s just a matter of maybe fine-tuning some of these projects,” said Judy Sutton, regional team leader for HDG Hotels, the operator of Quality Inn and Suites Conference Center.
“Overall, we support the intended purpose, but I don’t think the language is correct in there,” said Jeff Bailey, chief operating officer of HDG Hotels. “We’ve been told that it’s not intended for us, but in the language, it is.”
Occupants who stay for months or years at the motels in question are often low-income individuals or families who may have trouble securing permanent housing because of financial or legal troubles. Council members said it’s not their intent to shutter facilities and kick these people to the curb, but the status quo will no longer be acceptable.
Some of the conditions faced by families living at the motels that City Manager Debbie Manns has told him about are “absolutely appalling,” Starkey said. “We are going to put a plan in place to start a relationship with these families living there, let them know what their alternatives are and help them.”
“To me it’s simple,” he continued. “Start acting like a hotel again and you’re good. You have nothing to worry about. Work with us to help these families get proper housing for themselves in a positive fashion, clean up your facilities, clean up your areas, we’ll be good. That’s all we’re asking here.”