Dalton City Council punts on 'public nuisance' problem at old motel

Dalton City Council punts on 'public nuisance' problem at old motel

October 17th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

DALTON, Ga. —A judge says an old motel jeopardizes people's health, but the Dalton City Council didn't try to tear down the walls and clear out the land.

At the beginning of its meeting Monday night, the council deleted an item from its agenda about the Econo Lodge at 2007 Tampico Way. This comes after Municipal Court Judge Robert Cowan declared the building a public nuisance on Sept. 14. A city code officer and fire marshal argued to Cowan that the shuttered property is unsafe, pointing to waist-high weeds, a dirty, old swimming pool, and mattresses abandoned next to the building.

After Monday's meeting, Mayor Dennis Mock said the council tabled the issue because City Attorney Jim Bisson told him the item on the agenda "didn't meet the legal standard." Mock said Bisson called him late last week. The mayor isn't sure what, specifically, was wrong.

But why would the council need to address the motel in the first place, after a judge already declared the building a public nuisance?

Dennis Mock

Dennis Mock

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

"I don't know," Mock said. "Maybe that was the legal, procedural issue."

Bisson did not return an email or call to his office after Monday evening. Cowan, meanwhile, said some key players in the case may not have received a proper heads-up about the meeting. The owners of the building did not return a call made to a listed number Monday.

"I just want to make sure, as the judge, that everybody got notice and there's proof of that in my file," Cowan said.

In Georgia, a city can destroy, repair or close a building if a judge rules that it causes health or public safety risks. To designate a property as a public nuisance, city officials have to prove the area has unfixable problems, like fire hazards, bad ventilation or simply so much grime inside that people cannot safely live or work there.

In this case, code enforcement officers and the fire marshal have targeted the former Econo Lodge for more than a year. After finding several violations, a court filing shows, they sent a letter to the property's owner, Parag Barot. They say they heard nothing back and issued a citation in March 2016.

In September 2016, Atlanta attorney Michael Boakye-Danquah introduced himself as Barot's attorney. In November, he met with a code enforcement officer, Fire Marshall Capt. Jeff Dugger and City Solicitor Mike Corbin. Dugger said the debris and other fire hazards in the building could cost Barot $45,000 in fines. Boakye-Danquah asked for more time to fix the problem.

A judge pushed the case back to January of this year. Then, people on both sides agreed that Barot had made some progress. They halted any potential action, agreeing to revisit the problem this past summer. But according to the court filing, Barot had not fixed any more of the problems as of September.

Boakye-Danquah did not return a call or email seeking comment Monday. Neither did Corbin or Dugger.

Though named in a filing by the city, Barot is not listed as the owner of the building on the Whitfield County property appraiser's website. The building actually belongs to Shakti Krupa Inc., a company that dissolved in 2009. The listed officers of the company are Manjula Sheth, Rasik Sheth, Nick Sheth, Meetha Sheth and Ghanshyam Patel.

Court records show the company stumbled several times around the turn of the decade. First, in November 2010, it filed for Chapter 11 protection in the Eastern District of Tennessee. It owed $32,000 to the Georgia Department of Revenue and $29,000 to the county in back taxes at the time. A judge dismissed the case in December 2012 because the owners failed to provide a plan for how they thought they could pay off the debt.

In August 2013, Choice Hotels International filed a federal lawsuit against the company and Nick Sheth in the Northern District of Georgia. As the owner of the Econo Lodge trademark, Choice Hotels International entered into a franchise agreement with Sheth.

But Choice Hotels International's lawyer said Sheth broke the agreement, failing to make several payments, including monthly franchise fees. Sheth never responded to the lawsuit. And in January 2014, a judge awarded Choice Hotels International $90,000 in damages.

Months later, Choice Hotels International's lawyer said, Sheth continued to run the motel as an Econo Lodge, despite the ruling and debt.

On Monday, Dalton Police spokesman Bruce Frazier said the department has filed 131 incident reports from the motel's address. This includes 21 reports of burglaries, 17 drug violations, nine fugitive cases, four assaults and two sex offenses.

He said he did not know how long the motel has been closed, but "it's been abandoned for quite some time."

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.