Six families still living at unlicensed inn, despite city and state violations

By: - December 2, 2022 3:55 pm

State officials say the Hartwood Inn in Charles City, which isn’t licensed, is no longer operating as a hotel. (Photo via Google Earth)

For the third time in two months, the state of Iowa has refused to issue a hotel license to a Charles City inn plagued by health and fire-safety violations.

The Hartwood Inn, however, continues to remain in business, and the owner says there are six families living there now.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals says the inn hasn’t had a hotel license since November 2021 and so it can’t legally operate as a hotel. The city says the inn isn’t in an area zoned for apartment buildings and so it can’t legally operate as an apartment building. But during the past year, it has operated as both.

DIA spokeswoman Stefanie Bond said Wednesday the inn “does not appear to be operating as a hotel as they are housing long-term, non-transient individuals.”

On Friday, an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter was able to book a room at the Hartwood Inn for a one-night stay on Dec. 11, through The owner of the inn, Gilbert Starble, later cancelled the reservation and texted the reporter to say he hadn’t had time over the past year to take down the website’s booking information.

Starble said he still hopes to obtain a hotel license, but he acknowledged that could be difficult. “Our utilities are going to be shut off soon if we don’t have any money coming in,” he said. “But that’s our plan, to get that hotel license in the next 30 or 60 days and keep moving forward.”

As for the six families now living in the building, each are there as long-term apartment tenants, rather than short-term hotel guests, he said.

On Nov. 17, DIA officials conducted their third “pre-opening inspection” of the Hartwood Inn since Sept. 28. Nineteen of the 36 rooms were inspected, but the officials were unable to gain access to 17 others.

As before, the inspectors noted “strong, foul odors” in some rooms, and rodent droppings in others.

Of the 19 rooms that were inspected, 14 had doors, walls, furniture, microwave ovens or mattresses that were not maintained or in good repair. In several instances, contact paper or stickers were used to cover holes in doors or walls, and the inn did not appear to have adequate laundry equipment to wash bedding or towels.

The Hartwood Inn on Gilbert Street in Charles City was cited for 23 regulatory violations during an inspection that took place on Sept. 28. (Photo via Google Earth)

DIA notified Starble this week that inspectors will not return for another pre-opening inspection until he submits evidence, such as photos and videos, that he is in compliance with state regulations.

Before the next inspection, Starble is expected to ensure that all doors, walls, furnishings, microwaves, and bedding are free of holes and in good repair, and that the inn has fully cleaned each room has been treated for pests or vermin if necessary.

In its Nov. 17 inspection report, DIA noted a violation that has been cited previously: The inn doesn’t have complete registration records that would document the time and nature of each resident’s stay as either a hotel guest or a long-term tenant.

In recent months, state inspectors have reported finding space heaters, pizza ovens and camp stoves in guests’ rooms, and also reported inadequate fire protection and smoke detectors.

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

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

In late August, Charles City took Starble to civil court, alleging the Hartwood Inn had failed to maintain its hotel license and was operating 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 permitted to exist,” as well as a court order requiring Starble to comply with Iowa law by obtaining a hotel license. Starble has yet to file a response in the case.

Starble is president of Hartwood Hospitality Labs. On the company’s website, Starble claims to be engaged in what he calls “opportunistic real estate development.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.