‘Like a rifle shot’: Strip club owner says new Lexington County rule targets him

Columbia strip club shut down by county

The Black Pearl club on Broad River road has been issued a Stop Work order and has been shut down
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The Black Pearl club on Broad River road has been issued a Stop Work order and has been shut down

Dozens of Lexington County residents concerned that a strip club is about to open near them urged county leaders Tuesday night to outlaw the business.

“How in the world do you think a bunch of naked women is gonna help that neighborhood?” resident Susan Davis Bowers said at the public hearing.

Lexington County Council sided with the residents, giving first reading to a zoning change that could eventually bar the business from operating. But the strip club’s owner promised a protracted legal battle if the county follows through with the change.

The business owner, Jimmie Ellis, plans to open Savannah’s Gentlemen’s Club & Steakhouse at 4029 Fernandina Road in the St. Andrews area near the Whitehall subdivision. His property is divided by the Lexington-Richland county line, and Ellis is constructing a building in Lexington County that is about 4 feet from the county line.

Ellis said he received all of the necessary permits to open the business.

Under current county law, his business is legal. The law forbids a sexually oriented business from locating within 1,000 feet of churches, schools, day cares, public parks, cemeteries and other public businesses or facilities. The law also requires the businesses to be 1,000 feet from similar businesses.

None of those facilities or businesses are located within 1,000 feet of Ellis’ planned business in Lexington. But in Richland County, a church is about 1,000 feet away. The new law would make that illegal, as his business is within 100 feet of the county line.

The law change being considered by Lexington County says the 1,000-foot buffer applies to any protected facility regardless of what county it’s in. What’s more, for sexually oriented businesses that are within 100 feet of the county line, the law could protect an even larger radius.

That’s because the 1,000-foot buffer would begin at the county line, not the property line.

At a public hearing on the ordinance change, Ellis and attorneys representing him told council the proposed amendment was unlawful because it targeted his business alone.

“It only affects me. It is designed for that piece of property. It doesn’t affect anybody else,” he told The State.

There are few, if any, sexually oriented businesses so close to the county line.

“It’s like a rifle shot,” said Rivers Stilwell, an attorney with Nelson Mullins in Greenville who is representing Ellis.

Ellis, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said he is fine with community members objecting to his business. His problem is that he met all county rules for acquiring the necessary permits, yet almost two years after he started the project, council is trying to change the laws.

“There was no asterisk on the page, there was no footnote on the page that said the rules were a maybe,” he told council.

The nearby Richland County church is New Covenant Assembly Christian Ministry. Speaking on behalf of the church, Benny Wilson said he does not want the decades-old church that has invested heavily in the community to suffer because of one business.

“We do not want to be known as the church around the corner from the strip club,” he said.

The new measurement standard wouldn’t stop Ellis from continuing construction or even from operating, because he has the necessary permits. But it would make Savannah’s a “nonconforming use” business. If council approves the amended ordinance, Ellis would have three years — instead of the five the current law allows — to become compliant or close his doors.

Dozens of Lexington County residents showed up to the April 23 council meeting to speak out in favor of the change. Many spoke to the secondary effects of having a sexually oriented business in their neighborhood — they said it would attract criminal activity, such as assaults, narcotics use and human trafficking.

At the two sexually oriented businesses in the county, police have been called for a variety of issues over the past two years.

The sheriff’s department has responded to Platinum West, a strip club near West Columbia, at least 35 times since 2017. Most of the incident reports taken by police were for larceny and simple assault, sheriff’s department spokesperson Adam Myrick said.

At Lion’s Den on Ben Franklin Road in Leesville, police responded to two reports of non-violent offenses. Both were in 2018, Myrick said.

But many supporters of changing the law alluded to Richland County’s struggles to control crime in some areas that authorities say have illegally operating sexually oriented businesses.

After years of violent crimes at alleged strip clubs and nightclubs, Richland County passed an emergency ordinance in March allowing Sheriff Leon Lott to shut down “nuisance businesses.”

Ellis, who has been in the adult nightclub business for almost 41 years, said he wants illegal clubs that attract crime to be shut down, too. He said operators are just trying to make as much money as they can before they’re shut down.

“I am very much for what Sheriff Lott just got,” he said. “In the adult nightclub business, you’ve got to be smart enough to know that there’s money you don’t want. Those people, they don’t care ... they know the clock’s ticking as soon as they open.”

Sexually oriented businesses have been a point of contention in the past for the Midlands. While allowed, they are often challenged by changes to zoning laws, added licensing requirements and community scorn.

State Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, expressed concern about how properties in the Fernandina Road area could decrease in value. He said if the county didn’t crack down on sexually oriented businesses now, the effect could be chilling on business investments and job creation.

Savannah’s Gentlemen’s Club is near a motel and a liquor store, which some residents said is a bad combination and will attract behavior out of line with the county’s “family values.” Lexington-Richland 5 board member Beth Hutchinson said the property is also next to an interstate, which would make it ideal for outsiders.

“These are not our taxpayers. These are transients,” she said.

This proposed amendment, county spokesperson Harrison Cahill said, would create consistency at county boundaries.

“This brings the county’s ordinance . . . up to par with other surrounding county ordinances,” he said.

The county can’t outlaw all sexually oriented businesses because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they are protected so long as the activities are not obscene. But the court has allowed local governments to regulate where the businesses can locate.

Ellis could apply to the Lexington County Board of Zoning Appeals and ask for a variance from the 1,000-foot rule, county attorney Jeff Anderson said. Ellis could also ask for an extension to the nonconformity period but to do that, he would need to prove his business didn’t earn back its original investment expenses.

He has invested more than $400,000 in the business, according Stilwell. Ellis’ attorneys told council that if it approved the amendment, the county would end up with a “long, expensive” legal battle for violating his private property rights.

The county council will consider the ordinance twice more before making a final decision.

Here’s what Savannah’s Gentlemen’s Club and Steakhouse would look like, according to blueprints:

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.