Politics has always interested me. So has the law. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you I’m quite an argumentative and headstrong one. I should have been a lawyer.
While working to put this print issue together, news broke of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on whether they’d take an appeal from several Charlotte-area businesses challenging the city’s 1994 ordinane on zoning for adult and sexually-oriented businesses. On Nov. 2, the Court declined to hear the case, effectively upholding the decision in favor of the city by the U.S. Court of Appeals 4th Circuit.
The affected businesses included two very familiar with some in Charlotte’s LGBT community: Independence News bookstore and Chasers, a gay strip club. Both have been in business next to each other near the corner of The Plaza and and E. 36th St. since the early 1990s. The owner of the property says there’s been a bar of some sort operating at the location since the 1950s.
The 1994 ordinance required adult businesses to be a certain feet away from other similar businesses, schools, parks, daycares, churches and residential zones. Affected businesses were given an eight-year “amortization” period in which to comply with the law and were given four options: Apply for a variance, an exception to the zoning ordinance; change their business model and stop being an adult or sexually-oriented business; move their business to an appropriately zoned location; or close.
When the January 2002 deadline came to comply with the zoning ordinances, Independence News, Chasers’ owner O’Shields Entertainment and several other businesses (one now closed) sued the city. They argued in U.S. District Court that the zoning ordinances violated their Free Speech protections. They lost. Two of them, Independence News and a straight strip club, appealed.
Arguing their case in front of a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals 4th Circuit on the campus of Wake Forest University Law School in Winston-Salem, the businesses took a different tact the second go-around.
This time, Independence News and the straight strip club, along with O’Shields Entertainment as an intervenor, argued the city’s initial rationale and justification for passing the 1994 ordinance — increased crime rates and decreased property values linked to concentrations of adult businesses — hadn’t applied to them in the years since the ordinance was approved. In fact, the businesses presented solid evidence that crime rates had neither increased nor decreased as a result of their businesses and that property values had soared around them, especially in Independence News’ and Chasers’ NoDa neighborhood.
However solid the Court of Appeals thought the plaintiffs’ evidence, the judges nonetheless ruled, again, in favor of the city.
The most likely debate you’ll hear on this subject really has nothing to do with the law. As in most social or civic debates, arguments turn emotional.
“I don’t want an adult bookstore or strip club next to my house or church,” someone will say.
Most people, including me, agree with that kind of sentiment. But overly-emotionalized debates often don’t take into account the whole picture. Folks who’ve moved into the NoDa neighborhood in the time since Chasers’ and Independence News’ openings knew full well they were moving into the backyards of businesses that had been in operation years before they even thought of buying that new condo or renovating one of NoDa’s old mill homes.
Such businesses were never given a general grandfather clause, which would have allowed them to remain open and in operation as they had in the years before the ordinance took effect. Although the city gave them ample time in which to comply with the new zoning regulations, the businesses would eventually be forced to close, change their business model or move. The new ordinance fell far short of respecting the private property and business rights of real estate owners and entrepreneurs.
But regardless of individual opinions, this case is now closed and shelved. Parties on both sides have argued their points ad infinitum for almost 20 years now. The lawsuit has been taken as far up the federal court system as it can go. As harsh as it might sound, city attorney Bob Hagemann, quoted in this print issue’s news story on the situation, is right: “The courts have ruled. They lost. They need to comply with the ordinances.”