Taboo the Couples Superstore has put sexually explicit material back on its shelves as it launches a new challenge to Columbia’s zoning decisions, the store’s owner and lawyer said.
“Everything we purged is back out,” Jeff White told The State newspaper. White said he has filed an administrative appeal with city officials, which his lawyer says under state law gives him what’s call “a stay” to remain open as a true adult-oriented store. “As long as I have a stay, I will continue to operate as an adult shop,” White said.
In February, Taboo removed anatomically correct merchandise from its shelves in an attempt to remain in business as a general retail store after a federal judge ruled the city’s more restrictive zoning laws are constitutional.
White’s appeal in the federal court system continues.
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But now, White has restocked his shelves because he has filed a new challenge with the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals to remain open. Because of the new challenge, state law forestalls city officials from writing tickets that could cost the store up to $500 per day in fines, Tommy Goldstein, Taboo’s attorney, said. The city could not write tickets even if Taboo were to appeal the board’s decision to state court, White said.
Columbia has yet to issue a ticket despite written warnings that it would.
White’s decision to restock his shelves with sexual devices and return to being an adult store has reignited neighbors’ opposition.
“It’s reprehensible (that) they want to engage in this strategy,” said Tige Watts, president of the Brandon Acres/Cedar Terrace Neighborhood Association. “It sounds like to me that they’re running out the clock by initiating a legal action. They know they have little chance of winning, and their main commitment is to making money and to not being good community partners.
“It’s like you can’t trust anything they’re saying,” Watts said. “This is what is so frustrating with Taboo. They seem to be more interested in carrying out this ‘Woe is me’ story. He’s never really wanted to be a good business owner,” Watts said of White. White has not reached out to neighborhoods that surround Taboo, unlike other businesses that have opened in the area, Watts said.
Kyle Michel lives in the Hampton Grant neighborhood off Old Woodlands and has long opposed Taboo’s opening.
“We’ve seen that they will do whatever is possible to stay there,” Michel said “We’re all stuck waiting for them to exhaust legal remedies. But they should know that nobody wants them there.”
The store, at 4716 Devine St., once was a Mexican food chain restaurant with a drive-through window on the passenger side.
“Who would have ever thought that we would look back fondly on at outdated Taco Bell with a Grade B food rating,” said Michel, speaking as a resident, not in his capacity as a State House lobbyist for the city of Columbia.
The city is contesting Taboo’s right to appear before the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Goldstein said the two-front challenge opposes decisions by the zoning administrator that Taboo is operating illegally. The store, renamed Taboo the Couples Superstore, also is asking the board to grant a special exception that would allow it to stay in business at its location near Devine Street and Rosewood Drive, the lawyer said.
Those actions are separate from but in concert with Taboo’s appeal of federal judge Terry Wooten’s order that upheld the capital city’s new laws governing adult businesses. City Council rewrote the laws after an uproar from neighbors against Taboo, which opened legally in December 2011 under the old, more permissive zoning law.
Wooten has twice rejected Taboo’s suit, which alleges the laws are unconstitutional and were rewritten to keep any adult business from operating anywhere in the city. Taboo has appealed Wooten’s ruling to the U.S. Fourth Circuit bench in Richmond, Va. White has said he’ll take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
City officials have declined for weeks to be interviewed about the now nearly 5-year-old dispute. In response to the latest developments, city spokeswoman Leshia Utsey wrote, “Per our legal department, the city of Columbia does not comment regarding matters that may involve current or pending litigation.”
But City Hall has released to The State newspaper three letters to Taboo written by zoning administrator Brian Cook, but only after the newspaper’s open-records request, which included any tickets written against Taboo.
Scott Bergthold is a lawyer in Chattanooga hired by the city to write and defend the zoning and sex shop law changes.
“Taboo continues to operate a sexual device shop at 4716 Devine Street in violation of the city code,” Bergthold wrote to the newspaper on Feb. 23 in response to requests for an interview. “Thus, the city will begin enforcing its sexually oriented business ordinance against Taboo’s unlawful sexual device shop.”
Neither Bergthold nor any other city official involved in the dispute would explain how the city would enforce its laws and whether the store could stay open if it removed sexual devices from its inventory.
Goldstein places much of the blame for the impasse at the feet of City Councilwoman Leona Plaugh. “I think there are people in the city that would say we have reached a compromise (to keep Taboo open as a general retailer). Let’s move on,” Taboo’s lawyer said. “But it’s the politicians that keep upsetting the apple cart. In particular, Leona Plaugh.”
“That’s interesting,” Plaugh said when asked for a response. “I would always take a position that we should take a strong position. But (White) has certain rights.”
She said she worries that even with a purged inventory, city officials would be locked into return trips to the store to be sure more explicit merchandise has been kept out.
“I do not want him to skirt the issue and then come in the back door and do it all over again,” Plaugh said of White.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Taboo the Couples Superstore has filed a separate lawsuit against the city of Columbia, alleging 15 violations of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, including improper City Council meetings and withholding of public documents. A city spokeswoman said the city had no response because it does not comment on pending litigation. Among the suit’s contentions are:
▪ The city failed to disclose the subjects of closed-door sessions related to rewriting its zoning and adult business laws.
▪ City Council never voted in public to hire a Chattanooga, Tenn., attorney to help write the new laws and to represent the city in Taboo’s federal lawsuit.
▪ The city held illegal special-called meetings by not posting its agendas within the required 24 hours of the meetings.
▪ City Hall redacted documents Taboo requested that would spell out how much it is paying the out-of-state lawyer and refused to show a contract with him or the scope of his work.