Niantic Motel condemned Friday morning; 30 people displaced

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East Lyme — The Niantic Motel was condemned Friday morning after fire officials discovered the building’s fire alarm system had been disconnected, posing health and safety risks for roughly 30 people living in 14 rented rooms.

According to Building Official Steve Way, after an emergency medical call was made to the motel Thursday night, fire officials discovered the fire alarm system had been shut off, meaning the alarm would not sound off during a fire.

Fire officials stayed on site overnight as “fire watch” to ensure a serious fire didn’t happen, Way said, until health, building and fire personnel, as well as town and state police, came to the building Friday morning to determine a best course of action.

“Upon further investigation ... we all came to the consensus that the fire alarm system had been disconnected,” Way said. “So, we collectively agreed to close the building.”

The fire marshal also confirmed these details to The Day.

Way said the decommissioned alarm system could not simply be turned back on because building code dictates the system first would need to be tested throughout the building by both building and fire officials. “That’s not something that’s going to happen today,” he said.

Way said he and safety officials believe someone shut off the alarm system from inside the building in the last 30 days. However, "between state police, local police, myself and the fire marshal, we agreed we couldn't put our finger on exactly who pulled the plug," he said. "So, I don't think anyone will be getting arrested."

"The question is, did someone do it by mistake, or did someone do it maliciously in an attempt to put somebody in jeopardy," he said. "It's very hard to prove something like that."

Police Chief Mike Finkelstein said there is not enough criminal evidence to begin a police investigation.

Way said it also appeared the alarm system was never reconnected to a monitoring company after the building's previous owners disconnected from that company prior to September 2018, when the building was foreclosed. Sprinklers were never installed because they were not required the year the building was built, he said.

"You could lose the building easy enough because there is nothing there to put (a fire) out," Way said. "Based on a number of building code violations — electrical issues and fire separation issues between different compartments of the building have been violated by years of poor maintenance — a fire there could have been a catastrophic event."

Current motel residents were being relocated either across the street to the Starlight Inn, or to the Flagship Inn and Suites in Groton, another property of motel owners Jignesh and Umesh Patel of Shree Ganesh LLC, Way said. Utilities, power, cable and internet services also were shut off in the building to prompt residents to move out sooner. The fire watch is staying on scene to ensure everyone vacates the building promptly and safely.

The motel owners recently submitted a building permit application to the town outlining more than $500,000 in extensive renovations for the 50,000-square-foot building to be part of the Best Western hotel chain. Because of that, however, Way said town officials were led to believe tenants were no longer living in the building.

“I was led to believe it was vacant as part of their permit application ... and so was the fire marshal,” Way said. “... Apparently, it stayed open and was being kind of managed by someone who stays there. It’s a very confusing thing.”

Way said signs hanging in the motel Friday indicated that residents needed to vacate the building by mid-February because of upcoming renovations. Workers were moving around furniture at the site Friday to prepare for that work.

As part of the submitted building permit application, owners outlined updating the building’s façade, as well as its 93 rooms over the next six months. Renovations included replacing carpeting, furniture, tile and wallpaper, as well as the building's hallways, banquet facilities, lobby, parking lot and landscaping. The pool also will be renovated and the building will house a new restaurant.

Originally part of the Howard Johnson’s chain, the hotel was built in 1973 and has since cycled through various owners, including the Wolanic family, which had owned the building for several decades. The building at varying points also was part of the Days Inn chain and briefly housed the Shoreline Family Restaurant, until its roof collapsed in late 2010.

The building, according to town officials, has undergone minimal renovation over the years and has remained almost in its original 1970s condition. Way previously had told The Day that the motel has often been the subject of complaints about unkempt conditions.

m.biekert@theday.com

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