Protecting communities from the scourge of meth

“It was late in the night and I just needed a place to sleep inexpensively,” wrote a Yelp reviewer in 2015 about the Sterling Motor Inn in Burlington. He didn’t know he might have been exposed to methamphetamine.

In recent years, the motel just off I-5 along the main route through downtown Burlington had not only fallen into disrepairs, it had become a haven for drugs and crime. Police were called to the property about 200 times in 2015 for incidents, including weapons offenses, domestic violence, drug deals, prostitution, burglary and assault.

The last straw was Sept. 16, 2016 when a shooting occurred at the motel. That’s when the city of Burlington decided to step in, declaring the motel as a threat to public health, safety and welfare.

When public health officials began further investigating, they discovered the motel was so contaminated by methamphetamine, they thought their instruments weren’t correctly calibrated. 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, and one room tested 173 times over the state limit.

As many as 50 people were staying in the rooms, either long- or short-term, including children and senior citizens with medical conditions. Skagit County health officials knew they needed to move these people out. But they ran up against a state law, prohibiting the move. It wasn’t enough that the motel was severely contaminated with meth. The law required evidence that meth was being made in the motel – evidence authorities did not have. The Skagit County prosecutor’s office knew they couldn’t legally move the residents out, so Skagit County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich turned to Rep. Dave Hayes for help.

“It was a horrible situation where local agencies tried to do a cleanup, but couldn’t because of state laws,” said Hayes, who introduced House Bill 1757.

The bill allows counties to vacate and clean up drug-contaminated transient properties when contaminated by methamphetamine.

City officials looked for other ways in November 2016, such as building and fire code violations, to discourage residents from entering the motel. The motel owners eventually closed the facility after being informed of the legal liability of renting meth-contaminated rooms.

During the 2017 session, Hayes’ measure, House Bill 1757, passed the House and Senate unanimously and it was signed into law April 25 by the governor. The legislation is an important step toward ensuring public safety and health for the residents and the community.

“This bill provides a fix to this problem, should it ever happen again,” noted Hayes.

Since the bill passed, the Sterling Motor Inn has been sold, and the new owners plan to renovate the building to open a new hotel.

“We’re going to do our best to remodel it. Burlington will like it,” one of the new owners told the Skagit Valley Herald.