BUCKSPORT — The Town Council during a public hearing April 8 voted unanimously to declare the Spring Fountain Motel, which had been doing business as the Fountain Inn, to be listed as a dangerous building. The decision was made despite the owner’s comments that he was willing to work with the town to make the needed repairs.
The council at its Feb. 11 meeting had voted to hold the hearing to declare the motel a dangerous building, citing safety issues for both motel guests as well as public safety personnel who must respond there in an emergency.
The property, which was no longer licensed as a motel, rented rooms by the week and the month. The motel belongs to Asad Khaqan of Jersey City, N.J.
Khaqan attended the virtual hearing last week.
“There are three people working day and night over there, solving problems every day,” Khaqan told the council.
Khaqan also said that he was a former safety officer in the military and questioned Bucksport public safety officials’ concerns about the structure being a fire hazard.
“I’m trying to understand how there is a life and death situation,” said Khaqan. “There’s been a lot of progress not mentioned in this call. I want to be working here and do some business.”
Khaqan said his tenants, about 30 families, haven’t been able to pay what they owe him because of the pandemic and so he hasn’t had the funding to do to the needed repairs.
Deputy Mayor Paul Bissonnette questioned Khaqan’s assessment that there wasn’t a fire danger at the facility.
“A moment ago, you stated the CEO was overstating the fact that things were dangerous,” said Bissonnette. “You indicated you were unsure why that was because there was nothing combustible or actually on fire.”
“What I’m stating is that I think we could review this,” Khaqan said. “Have a third party come in or someone who is not involved in this way. It’s very, very hard for us to pay for everything right now. I do not want to be painted as I’m not concerned. This is my place. I’m taking care of 30 families over there. I really want to take care of the situation.”
During the hearing, Code Enforcement Officer Luke Chiavelli listed numerous life safety problems with the facility, including a lack of working smoke alarms in the guest rooms as well as a lack of fire protection in central areas of the property, including the boiler room and storage rooms. The boiler room should have sprinkler systems installed and fire safe doors. It has neither, according to Chiavelli.
When the code officer last inspected the building on Jan. 24 of this year, none of the life safety issues has been addressed. Portable heaters, which are not UL rated for safety or have automatic shutoff if knocked over, were still in use in the rooms.
“Most rooms had no smoke detectors,” Chiavelli said. “We found the fire alarm control panel was inoperable. Obviously that’s a central piece of equipment in a facility like this.”
There are still openings in the ceilings that can allow smoke to pass, should there be a fire.
“We found that most rooms have electrical issues,” Chiavelli said.
There are also issues of cleanliness and sanitation.
“We found that most rooms were being smoked in,” the code officer said. “We found that most rooms were beyond filthy.”
There is one washer/dryer that would be suitable for a single-family dwelling — not a motel or boarding facility, according to the code officer.
There are plumbing issues. There are rooms without running water.
“We found shower walls with holes in them covered by duct tape,” said Chiavelli.
In fact, the electricity and the water were shut off at the motel the day of the council meeting — April 8.
Chiavelli said the staff has tried to do repairs, but the work that’s needed should be done by licensed contractors.
Town officials have said repeatedly that their concerns about the safety of the facility extend not just to the residents at Spring Fountain but also to the town employees who would be sent to respond to fire, EMS and police emergencies there.
The situation began in December of 2018 when Spring Fountain applied for an innkeeper’s license, Chiavelli said. That prompted an inspection by the town, the results of which concerned former Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Hammond enough that he contacted the Maine Fire Marshal’s Office.
The Fire Marshal’s Office took no action to work with the motel, according to Chiavelli, who said he had concerns about the lack of action by the fire marshal as well as the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“In August 2019, I had several meetings with department heads; it was repeated to me that if the fire marshal took over, they would have more authority and could shut them down,” said Chiavelli. “I requested they take over the situation and they agreed to do so. I was consistently told they [fire marshal] were happy with the progress they were seeing.”
“In November of 2020, it became clear from actions and statements of the state fire marshal that they had no intention of taking any action against the motel,” said Chiavelli. “I contacted the DHHS health inspector — to find out if they were aware the motel was operating without a license. Because the owner told them they were only renting rooms by the week, they were no longer a motel and DHS washed its hands with it.”
One of the town councilors asked about the state fire marshal’s lack of action.
“They said they’d have to go to the Attorney General’s Office and get lawyers involved,” the code officer said. “They disagree with me. They think they are doing their job. I don’t know why you can let things like this go and you know if people die and we did nothing … So here we are with lawyers involved, doing it ourselves. We could have avoided this if the state Fire Marshal’s Office took action.”
On Wednesday morning, Fire Marshal Joe Thomas referred questions to Assistant Fire Marshal Rich McCarthy, who could not be reached for comment before press time.
The town’s attorney, Phil Saucier of Bernstein Shur, said Khaqan has 30 days to appeal the council’s decision to the Hancock County Superior Court.
On Friday morning, Chiavelli posted an order to vacate on every door at the former motel.
On Tuesday, five rooms were still occupied.
“Several of those are intending to leave in a day or two,” said Chiavelli. “There is at least one who we are certain will not leave without a court order and police involvement, but we are holding out hope he will comply. We are working to secure the property since the owner didn’t.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Code Enforcement Officer Luke Chiavelli.