Late-night ordinance could have disastrous legal repercussions for local watering holes 

Razing the Bars

Charleston is a brand loved by millions and it must be protected at all costs. Right?

Jonathan Boncek

Charleston is a brand loved by millions and it must be protected at all costs. Right?

Joe Riley is about to get all up in your nightlife, Charleston.

City Council approved an ordinance last week that will require some bars to hire additional security guards after midnight. The new ordinance also mandates that bar personnel help maintain law and order in parking lots and on sidewalks, and it creates a mayor-appointed Late Night Entertainment Establishment Review Committee to vet all new business applications for bars. The new rules take effect July 1, and Council plans to revisit the ordinance and tweak it after six months.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this ordinance is how little of a fight bar owners put up against it, in marked contrast to previous battles over 2 a.m. closing time and the indoor smoking ban (for more on the history of Charleston's bar crackdowns, see page 15). At the May 28 council meeting where the ordinance was approved, only two bar owners, Jim Curley of A.C.'s Bar & Grill and Chris "Boston" DiMattia of the Recovery Room Tavern, showed up to weigh in during the public comment session. "We're not officers. We're not paid to be officers," DiMattia said. "We pay into the hospitality tax. We pay the cabaret license fees. We pay extra taxes that go toward policing."

A few bar owners were consulted about the ordinance. According to Frances Cantwell, the city's assistant corporation counsel, city staff spoke with representatives from establishments including A.C.'s, Halls Chophouse, Triangle Char & Bar, and Proof during the revision process, and Police Chief Greg Mullen started meeting with peninsula neighborhood and business groups "months and months" before the ordinance showed up at City Council.

In its final form, the ordinance will apply to any business that:

1. Isn't located in a hotel

2. Is open to the general public

3. Is open after midnight

4. Is licensed to allow on-premises consumption of alcohol, and

5. Is required to have a Class 7(a) business license (also known as a "cabaret license") for deriving 35 percent or more of its profit from alcohol sales.

When the City Paper reached out to bar owners and managers for input, few were interested in speaking. Some, including those at Charleston Beer Works and Avondale's Voodoo, said they already employ private security guards and will not need to hire additional personnel to meet the new requirements. Others didn't return phone calls. The management at one bar said they didn't want to go on the record for fear that police would retaliate with increased scrutiny of their business.

Mike Lotz, director of operations at Triangle, was flabbergasted at the ordinance's far-reaching implications. He says that while the company doesn't have an official statement on the issue, he personally estimates the new security requirements will cost the Avondale bar and restaurant upwards of $30,000 per year in additional security costs. "I think that Mayor Riley's using a broad-brush approach to solve some problems that are occurring on Upper King Street," Lotz says. But Cantwell says that since the ordinance is a law of general application and not a zoning ordinance, it can't be applied to just one section of town. If the city creates new rules for one bar, it has to create new rules for them all.

Lotz says he knows six or seven bar owners and restaurateurs who are planning to approach the city about postponing the ordinance's effective date and making further revisions, but he says none of them have gone public with their concerns yet. "We're not a knee-jerk community. That's not who we are," Lotz says.

The most outspoken proponents of the ordinance were members of downtown homeowners' associations. At the council meeting, representatives of neighborhood associations from Charlestowne, the French Quarter, and Vendue Range all spoke in favor of passing the ordinance. One homeowner mentioned using a decibelmeter to track noise violations in his neighborhoods after 2 a.m., and another said he feared Upper King would turn into Bourbon Street 2.0.

Dwayne Green, a lawyer who previously served as an assistant city attorney, says that when downtown homeowners complain, the city listens. "When these kind of complaints come about, there's a handful of probably wealthier, influential homeowners and neighborhoods in the peninsula that seem to drive this type of [ordinance]," says Green, who occasionally contributes columns to the City Paper. "It's a relatively small group of people."

Green says he'll be interested to see how the ordinance gets enforced. "Here's what my fear is," Green says. "There's some businesses that they're probably OK with, that people aren't complaining about, but if you happen to have a neighbor that's right above an establishment or next to an establishment and they're complaining all the time, then some businesses are going to draw more scrutiny than others. The questions is, is this law going to be equally enforced and fairly applied?"


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