Taboo legal case

Taboo lawsuit reveals approved city locations for sexually oriented businesses

nophillips@thestate.comJanuary 11, 2014 

— The city of Columbia has 42 addresses, mostly along interstates, where a sexually oriented business would be allowed under its latest zoning ordinances.

The list of addresses previously has been a secret.

The owners of Taboo, the city’s only licensed sex business, has been asking for the list, but city officials would not release it until the owners filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s zoning and licensing ordinances for adult businesses.

The State newspaper also previously had asked for the list and been denied.

Most of the locations are clustered in three areas:

• Frontage roads along I-20 between Fairfield and Monticello roads

• Along I-77 between Bluff and Shop roads

• Along Atlas Road, near I-77.

Those locations are the result of the city writing its zoning laws so that sexually oriented businesses are forced to locate in industrial areas. Before the city updated its zoning laws, sexually oriented businesses were allowed along major commercial thoroughfares. The updated ordinance also increased the distances allowed between adult businesses and schools, churches and residential areas.

The city changed its ordinance after the owners of Taboo, a store that sells adult toys, movies and magazines, opened in December 2011 at 4716 Devine St. The corridor has added other businesses, including a Whole Foods grocery, since Taboo’s owners converted an old Taco Bell building into a sex shop.

Nearby residents, meanwhile, complained about a sex shop being located so close to their homes.

Sexually oriented businesses have been a thorn in the sides of local governments, including Columbia and Richland County, for decades. They often draw complaints from churches and from parents who say they are offended by the content the store or bars offer their customers. Federal courts have ruled that pornography and other adult material are protected by the First Amendment, but local governments can regulate those businesses.

In recent years, Richland County has tangled with strip clubs over their locations.

Taboo was in compliance with local zoning and licensing ordinances until the city rewrote them just weeks after its opening. But the city gave Taboo a two-year exemption, with the opportunity for an extension if it could prove a move would cause a financial hardship. Taboo’s owner, Jeff White, was denied an extension after a hearing.

The city ordered him to close at midnight on Dec. 31. That led White to file the federal lawsuit accusing the city of violating his civil rights by using arbitrary and shifting tactics to force his business to close.

The city has allowed Taboo to remain open while both parties await a ruling on a temporary restraining order, which a judge is considering after a Friday hearing. The city is arguing that White had time to find another location and the opportunity to show financial hardship, thereby earning an extension, but hasn’t done so.

White testified Thursday in a court hearing that he had written letters and sent emails to the city asking for alternative sites in anticipation of moving. The city had been uncooperative, he said.

His attorney, Thomas Goldstein, asked when he received the list of legal locations. White answered, “I had to file a lawsuit to get it.”

White is not the only one who has been denied access to lists and maps of legal locations for sexually oriented businesses.

In January 2012, The State newspaper asked the city for a list of locations where the businesses potentially would be allowed. The request was denied. In a letter to the paper, the city’s public relations department wrote that the materials were “exempt as correspondence or work products of legal counsel” and would violate attorney-client relationships.

The same request was submitted by The State newspaper to Richland County in January 2012 and in January 2013 and was denied both times. The county also told the newspaper that the information was protected through attorney-client privilege because “it was prepared in preparation for trial and as part of an ongoing settlement agreement.”

The city’s list of suitable addresses was discussed at length during Thursday’s hearing, during which White asked for a temporary restraining order that would allow him to operate while the lawsuit worked its way through the court.

Krista Hampton, Columbia’s planning and development services director, testified that the analysis of permissible sites was created using GPS technology. After a map was created, the city sent inspectors to each location to verify that it fit within the zoning rules, she said.

The city actually has 45 parcels where an adult business could locate, because two addresses are subdivided, Hampton said. The sites total more than 140 acres of available space for sexually oriented businesses, she said.

After the city released its list of qualified addresses, White said he went to each location in his search for a new location.

“To no surprise to me, 38 of the 42 sites are not available for sale or lease,” he said.

One site had a sign indicating it was for lease, but he said he called and was not able to get it.

And White told the court that he found four locations on the list that he believes would violate the latest zoning requirements because they are too close to churches or neighborhoods.

Besides the restrictive zoning requirements, White said the city’s latest regulations had other restrictive clauses. He must close at midnight, and sexually oriented businesses are not allowed to sell sex toys and media such as magazines and movies in one location.

Taboo closes at midnight, but it is violating the requirement about what it can sell.

“They have not tried to enforce it on me,” White said.

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Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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