OLYMPIA — The Burlington motel was so contaminated by methamphetamine that lab technicians that tested samples from the rooms thought their instruments weren’t correctly calibrated, says Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton.
Traces of meth were found on the carpet, walls, window sills, air-conditioning units and even light switches. Forty of the motel’s 42 rooms were significantly contaminated by meth, with one room testing 173 times over the state limit.
But current state law wasn’t enough to move the Sterling Motor Inn’s residents out and force a cleanup. Skagit County health officials also needed evidence that meth was being made in the motel — evidence authorities did not have.
“It was a horrible situation where local agencies tried to do a cleanup but couldn’t because of [state] laws,” said Rep. Dave Hayes, R- Camano Island.
Legislation proposed by Hayes, House Bill 1757, aims to change that by allowing counties to vacate and clean up drug-contaminated properties under the state Clandestine Drug Lab law without showing evidence of drug manufacturing.
The bill passed the House last week and is now in the Senate.
Only county health departments have the authority to close a property and require a cleanup if drug contamination is at a level that might harm people who live there, said Dave Gillford, program manager at the Office of Environmental Health and Safety within the Washington Department of Health.
The drug-manufacturing requirement became an obstacle for the city of Burlington, as city officials struggled to resolve long-running complaints with the Sterling Motor Inn, which had both short-term and longer-term residents.
“For the last 10 to 12 years, the motel has been giving us problems,” Sexton said. But it was only two years ago, after an increase in complaints, that the city decided to investigate the motel.
“We started to look more closely by monitoring the police response to the Sterling and we quickly realized it was getting a high frequency of responses,” Burlington City Administrator Bryan Harrison said.
In 2015 alone, city officials say, there were 180 police calls to the Sterling, while bigger hotels in the area get only about 10-12 a year.
“It wasn’t an uncommon place to find stolen cars, domestic violence and drug offenses,” Harrison said.
City officials said they met with the property owners and though the owners agreed to help, “nothing came of it,” Harrison said.
Joseph Bowen, an attorney representing the Sterling owners, told the Skagit Valley Herald in September that the owners had cooperated by installing security systems and calling 911 to report incidents of trespassing. He also said the city was blaming the motel for what is a broader neighborhood crime problem.
When contacted by The Seattle Times last week, Bowen said he no longer represented the motel’s owners. The owners have not responded to messages asking for comment.
The Burlington City Council voted last September to declare the property a blight to the neighborhood, the first step in condemning the Sterling. But condemnation can be a lengthy legal process, so instead the city offered to buy the motel.
The owners agreed, and as part of the purchase agreement the city conducted a feasibility review of the property that included tests for drug contamination.
That’s when they found the high levels of meth in the rooms. Theresa Borst, President of Bio Clean, the company that took the room samples, said the results were both shocking and “definitely unusual.”
Realizing the Sterling was dangerously contaminated, city officials contacted the county health department to close the property and begin a cleanup.
But Skagit Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich stepped in, warning the county that the Clandestine Drug Lab law prohibited the county from closing the property unless there was evidence of a drug lab.
“The law dates back to the days when meth labs were pretty common in the area and hasn’t been changed since,” said Weyrich. “Because of the law our legal opinion was that there had to be some evidence of manufacturing [of meth] before we could go in.”
Without such evidence, the city looked for a way around the law — building- and fire- code regulations. The city found the Sterling in violation of such codes and in November officials posted notices advising residents not to enter the premises.
“We told them they should leave based on the code violations, but we also brought a county health official with us to tell them that we also found high levels of meth contamination,” said Harrison.
Harrison acknowledged that while there were serious fire- and building-code violations, the impetus for vacating the residents was “the meth contamination.”
“We felt compelled as a city to come in,” he said.
The city set up a shower station in one of the rooms that was clean enough to be occupied in order to help decontaminate the residents, said Harrison. The city also provided transportation for many of the residents to housing for up to 10 nights in a nearby hotel.
The Sterling owners voluntarily closed the motel in November after the city informed them of the legal liability posed by renting meth-contaminated rooms, Harrison said.
But the motel has yet to be cleaned up to below the state limit, Burlington City Council member Rick DeGloria said.
The Washington Department of Health has vacated the Sterling’s motel license, but the owners are appealing the revocation.