An Iowa hotel has been operating for one year without the required state license, despite dozens of health and safety violations cited by regulators.

The hotel’s owner, Gilbert Starble, says the Hartwood Inn of Charles City has served as a home for what he calls “criminals, ex-convicts, recovering addicts and poor people.” In recent months, state inspectors have reported finding space heaters, pizza ovens and camp stoves in guest rooms, and also reported inadequate fire protection and smoke detectors.

Over the past six months, the 36-room hotel has repeatedly failed state inspections to operate as a licensed hotel, while city officials have refused to approve its operation as an apartment building.

In September, an inspector found “bloody stains” in a room where a person had recently died, as well as human and animal feces on the floors of other rooms.

Despite regulators’ findings, Starble continued to rent rooms at the Hartwood Inn throughout 2022, for both short- and long-term stays — essentially operating as both an unlicensed hotel and an unapproved apartment building.

A state inspector’s photo showing a camp stove inside one of the rooms at the Hartwood Inn in Charles City. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals)

Paul Hughes, a building enforcement officer with Charles City, said Tuesday that state officials are aware that the Hartwood Inn is currently occupied by tenants or guests, despite the lack of a license and what he called “dangerous” conditions. what exists there.

“It’s just really bad,” he said. “I don’t know, I wouldn’t put a gas in there.”

Hughes said it is his understanding that the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, which oversees Iowa hotels, intends to send a letter to Starble in the next few days, but added that he is not free to discuss the details.

When asked what DIA plans to do about the Hartwood Inn, Stefanie Bond, spokeswoman for the department, said Tuesday that she could not respond to that question, but would try to do so on Wednesday.

City and state officials have cited the business for numerous violations this year, but the citations have not yet been linked to any fines or penalties.

In late August, Charles City took Starble to civil court, alleging that the Hartwood Inn failed to maintain its hotel license and operated the business as an apartment building in violation of zoning restrictions.

The city is seeking a civil penalty of $750 for each day the violation is “allowed to exist,” as well as a court order requiring Starble to comply with Iowa law by obtaining a hotel license. Starble has not yet filed a response in the case.

Latest inspection reveals more problems

On Oct. 28, a DIA inspector visited the inn in response to complaints that it was in its 11th month of operation without a license, had a bed bug problem and had no running water. The visit was also considered a “pre-opening inspection” because, although the inn was fully operational, it was trying to obtain a new license and failed its pre-opening inspection in September.

“This facility has been operating without a current hotel license since November 2021,” the inspector wrote in her report, “so this portion of the complaint has been verified. There was no evidence of bed bugs and running water was available in all rooms inspected today is, so these parts of the complaint have not been verified.”

The inspector, Tina Ahlberg, was accompanied by a DIA supervisor, Rose Haukedahl, and a Charles City building official who was there to collect evidence of any city code violations.

Ahlberg cited the hotel for 15 violations, noting that there were no smoke detectors in four of the 30 rooms designated for use by transient guests. Ahlberg also reported that she was unable to gain access to 17 of the hotel rooms, but did not explain why.

“Due to basic requirements not being met, and observed active pest activity, the hotel license is not approved,” Ahlberg wrote in her report.

In addition to peeling paint and dirty laundry carts marked, “Clean laundry only,” Ahlberg noted unspecified “evidence of vermin” in two rooms; “strong, foul odors” in four rooms; colored carpets in eight rooms; fur of an unidentified animal on the floor of one unoccupied room; walls in eight rooms that were dirty or had holes in them; and doors that “showed signs of impact” in four rooms.

She also noticed torn or missing window screens in five rooms; camera cabinets that were dirty; damaged window coverings and wall lamps; An outdoor shower that was full and did not need to be emptied; and furniture that was dirty, had deep holes or missing hardware.

In addition, the bedding in 10 rooms was dirty or stained; six rooms had mattresses with holes in them; and four rooms had toilets that were not attached to the floor. Ventilation fans did not work in 12 of the rooms.

Ahlberg also noted that while all of the rooms were posted as non-smoking, one room had a strong odor of smoke.

The city’s building inspector noted only a few issues in his report, including mouse droppings indicating a possible infestation; missing fan covers; a broken exhaust; and, in one room, the lack of a ground fault interrupter to prevent electric shocks.

City rejected condo proposal

Starble, the owner of the Hartwood Inn, said the violations cited at the hotel stemmed from an “unwise decision” on his part to treat the hotel as an apartment complex in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. pandemic, which has a serious, negative impact on the hotel industry.

“The violations were clearly due to this unwise choice to house homeless people, addicts, criminals, ex-convicts, recovering addicts and poor people,” he told the Iowa Capital Dispatch in September. “It just didn’t work out.”

Court records indicate Starble has sued several tenants for nonpayment of rent and accused at least two of them of assault. Starble is president of Hartwood Hospitality Labs. On the company’s website, Starble claims to be engaged in what it calls “opportunistic property development”.

The website indicates that Hartwood Inn was at one time operated as a 36-room motor lodge, accompanied by a six-unit, multifamily “income property” consisting of what Starble called “tiny houses.”

In August, the City Council denied a request from Starble to rezone the hotel property from commercial use to multifamily housing, the Charles City Press reported. This decision was taken after the council learned that the hotel had been operating without a license since last November.

Councilors at the time also expressed concern about Starble’s plan to turn at least part of the hotel into an apartment complex, noting a high number of police calls to the business in recent years.

Starble told the Capital Dispatch in September that he intended to treat the Hartwood Inn as a true hotel, providing accommodations only for short-term guests. He said he will eventually seek city approval to convert the property into dormitories for a faith-based school dedicated to teaching “gospel music and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Inspectors find vermin, feces, blood

The October 28 inspection at the Hartwood Inn followed several other inspections that took place this year while the hotel remained open and unlicensed:

June 2, 2022: A state inspector examined three rooms at the hotel and cited the establishment for 11 violations, including hall stairs contaminated by debris, dirty carpets, soiled mattresses and box springs, a room “not adequately treated for insects,” and ‘ another room that “had evidence of cockroaches.” The visit was in response to a complaint alleging a lack of pest control.

“Most rooms are rented weekly and monthly as apartments,” the inspector reported. “Only one to three rooms are used for passing guests.” Of the three rooms examined, the inspector reported, one was “closed until further notice due to an imminent health hazard” of some unspecified nature.

June 24, 2022: A state inspector attempted a “physical recheck” of the hotel and noted that no one was in the office and “both” of the guest rooms ordered to be decommissioned on June 2 were rented and occupied. (The June 2 report suggests that only one room was put out of service.) The inspector reported that she could not determine whether the hotel was in compliance with all regulations. In the report, she wrote: “If you want to continue renting to transient guests, a hotel license is required.”

July 14, 2022: Twenty violations were cited, with the inspector unable to access the lobby and numerous other areas of the building. “Public interior halls were covered in litter and dirty carpeting,” the inspector reported, adding that some furniture and bedding were on a “sidewalk” in front of the rooms and were badly soiled.

“Hotel operates without a valid license,” the inspector reported. “Hotel is operating outside the requirements for a transient guest.” The government visit was in response to complaints that Starble was renting rooms as if they were apartments and that the rooms had mold and did not meet fire safety requirements.

“One of the rooms was marked ‘Private, No Trespassing,’ and the lobby was locked with no hours posted,” the inspector wrote. A DIA supervisor called Starble, who said he intended to “renew” his license — there was no license in place — and would continue to offer rooms for rent as a hotel. “Facility is operating without a license,” the inspector wrote in her report. “Until license has been applied for, processed and pre-opening inspection performed, the facility may not rent rooms to transient guests or the public.”

September 28, 2022: Twenty-three violations were cited, including the lack of a license while operating as a hotel. The inspector also noted dirty floors, walls and ceilings; bloody stains in a room where a person has recently died; feces of people and animals on the floors; several rooms “in gross, unsanitary condition” with a strong odor; holes in the walls; dirty and stained curtains, furniture and carpets; evidence of vermin in various rooms; an “excess of garbage” in one room; a large number of flies in two rooms; insufficient ventilation; stained mattresses in nine rooms; lack of hotel towels; incomplete guest registration records; and smoking is allowed in more than the maximum 20% of all rooms.

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