More than 800 police responses over five years, exposed wiring, sagging floors and mold were just a few of the items that led an engineering firm hired by Seaside Park to recommend the Desert Palm Inn be redeveloped, and were too much for the motel’s owner to overcome in his opposition to government action on his property.
The Seaside Park planning board, after a marathon hearing that lasted four hours, voted unanimously Monday to recommend the motel property be formally declared an area in need of redevelopment by the borough council, a move that could potentially signal the ultimate condemnation of the North Ocean Avenue establishment.
Under state land use law, a property can be formally declared in need of redevelopment – essentially, meeting criteria that classifies it as a blighted area – by a municipal council. Before the council can vote on the declaration, however, the town’s planning board must recommend doing so after consulting with an engineer or planner. In the case of the Desert Palm, licensed professional planner Kendra Lelie, of T&M Associates, testified that the property meets multiple criteria spelled out in the state’s redevelopment statute in order to qualify.
Should the council eventually vote in favor of the formal declaration, the borough will have numerous options to deal with the property – including working with the current owner to redevelop it, forcing the current owner to sell the property, or condemning it and reselling it to a new owner. In each case, the whatever becomes of the property would have to meet strict criteria set by the council – for example, which types of structures would be permitted, their sizes, densities and other factors. Theoretically, the property, if condemned, could also be kept for public use.
Lelie ran down a laundry list of various deficiencies and code violations she observed on a site visit to the Desert Palm in August. Among them included faulty wiring, the presence of mold, insecure sinks, sagging floors, broken windows, rot in floor surfaces, and pool or laundry chemicals left unattended outside.
She also noted that, since 2017, there have been a staggering 863 visits by police to the property. The calls included “alarms, assaults, civil disputes, criminal mischief, deceased persons dead on arrival, disturbances, domestic disputes, drugs, vice, intoxicated persons, mental health cases, noise complaints, stolen vehicles, suicide attempts, thefts, threats, unattended deaths and verbal disputes.”
“The condition of this property is putting its occupants at risk,” Lelie said.
The Desert Palm Inn is owned by Shree Jyoti LLC, a company owned by Ramesh Kania, a physician based in Livingston who previously pleaded guilty in federal court to receiving kickbacks in a Medicare fraud scheme. Public records indicate Kania had his medical license suspended, but ultimately reinstated by the state Board of Medical Examiners.. According to Ocean County tax records, the motel was purchased in 2007 for $3.2 million. The property is currently assessed at $2,693,400, producing an annual property tax bill of $40,912.
Kania testified that he was “not a dirty businessman” during the hearing, and pledged to improve the conditions at his motel. He said he would no longer permit “prom rentals” in the future and has ended his relationship with the Ocean County Board of Social Services, which placed emergency housing clients in rooms at the Desert Palm. He was represented by Lakewood attorney Peter H. Wegener, who aggressively cross-examined Lelie after she presented the findings of her report in an attempt to poke holes in the veracity of the some of the violations that were noted.
“I’m going to close this property in October of this year,” Kania said. “I’m going to open it April 1, 2023. “Now I see where the world is going. I have a feeling now with weather patterns changing and what is going on down the shore here – my presence here is 25 plus years – as it opens up we will have good business to sustain us.”
Board members, including Police Chief James Boag, who sits on the planning board, questioned Kania as to his prospective tenants before Memorial Day should he refrain from offering prom rentals.
“I’ve been here for 27 years and I know, in general, who stays at motels in April and May,” Boag said.
The motel’s general manager of 15 years, Das Patel, of Manchester, also testified before the board. When questioned about the more than 800 police calls to the property, Patel admitted to “some noise complaints,” but under cross-examination from a resident, shied away from addressing the more high-profile incidents that the motel has seen in recent years. He also said some of the calls for police services may have been related to traffic accidents that took place in front of the motel, a claim that was also proffered by Wegener.
Patel said he or his assistant is on site “twenty-four seven,” and Kania relayed a story on how he monitored security camera feeds while on a trip to Mumbai. Regarding the condition of the building, Patel admitted that code and safety violations were something of a normal occurrence during each annual inspection.
“Every year they come in for the violations,” he said, referring to inspectors. “We called an electrician and we went by him. We do [repairs] in one, two or three weeks, and then they come back.”
During the last visit by inspectors, 33 of the motel’s rooms were cited for violations of some kind, and inspectors were not allowed inside two rooms by management.
“You’re looking at 66 to 70 percent of the property with violations,” board member Frank Losey responded. “That’s a lot of violations. You did all those repairs? They would have to occur over a pretty long time – do you only do repairs when you’re cited? It kind of shows a pattern to me where you’re doing repairs when you’re cited.”
The calls for emergency services remained a sticking point, as well, with Kania playing down his personal knowledge of their frequency.
“When I bought the property, I wanted to make it better,” Kania said. “That’s my passion … I don’t want to be a nuisance to the community.”
It was at this point that he pledged to end prom rentals.
“I guarantee you now that I will not give high school groups rooms in my property,” he told board members. “I will not rent a room to anybody who comes with an ID card with a local address. If someone is living in Toms River and wants to stay at the hotel, he has no business.”
Kania also said he has “a policy that you cannot get drunk at my property,” which elicited some audible laughter among residents in the audience. He added that he does not allow marijuana, despite its legality, anywhere on the property.
As for the number of calls to police: “It was a big surprise to me,” he said. “If it was true, I would not be in this business so long.”
“Don’t you think you had a responsibility to the borough to ask the police department, ‘what can we do better?'” Losey said, after Kania testified he had not read any police reports about the incidents which occurred at the motel.
Ultimately, board members were advised by board counsel that they should consider only the facets of Lelie’s testimony that go directly toward the criteria on redevelopment – the physical condition of the building, previous code violations and safety issues – rather than “who’s staying there,” such as prom revelers or social services clients.
“There is a history of not maintaining the property until cited,” said Losey, after Wegener completed his questioning of Kania and Patel. “The conditions range from minor issues, to issues that are dangerous. It is almost impossible to believe there was not an awareness on the part of the staff that there wasn’t an excessive number of police calls.”
Boag motioned to send the board’s recommendation to the council, affirming that the motel should be declared an area in need of redevelopment. The board voted unanimously in favor of doing so.