Politics & Government

Emergency ordinance lets sheriff shut down nuisance businesses, illegal strip clubs

An emergency ordinance was passed by Richland County Council that could deal with a lingering violence issue.

On Tuesday, council voted to enact a 60-day emergency ordinance to define and deal with “public nuisances,” according to council members Allison Terracio and Jim Manning.

That ordinance gives Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott the power to shut down what he has described as problem-causing and illegal businesses.

Under the emergency order, a business can be determined a nuisance if the establishment prompts an “excessive public safety response.”

The act defines “excessive” as requiring five or more emergency vehicles more frequently than similar businesses or needing code enforcement more often than most places. If crowd control or traffic safety becomes an issue at a business, then it warrants a nuisance designation.

Also, a business would be labeled a nuisance if a police incident report, a citation or search warrant is filed more than six times in a year for alcohol violations, drugs, gun violations, assault or other violent crimes against people.

While the emergency ordinance lasts two months, county council also passed the first vote in making the law permanent, a process that will require two more votes and public hearings before the statute’s finalization.

”We’re doing our best to ensure that there are no unintended consequences for the permanent ordinance,” Terracio said.

The ordinance comes after a series of violent incidents in Richland County bars and alleged illegal strip clubs since 2017, The State reported. That year, Lott began venting his frustrations over not having the power to shut down the clubs, which he described as putting the public’s safety at risk and serving as hubs for illegal activity.

In 18 months between mid 2017 and early 2019, violent and sometimes deadly incidents occurred at nightclubs every other month on average, The State reported.

In that time, three shootings and an alleged vehicular murder occurred at bars near Decker Boulevard within two miles of each other. Two of the clubs where the violence happened were acting as illegal strip clubs, the sheriff’s department said.

“The county ordinances just don’t have any teeth,” Lott had said in December 2017 after two incidents at allegedly illegally operating strip clubs that left three dead. “We don’t have an effective mechanism at this time” for closing places.

The emergency ordinance and proposed permanent law give the sheriff the teeth he’s wanted.

In response to this week’s decisions, Ron Huff, president of the Greater Woodfield Community Association, which borders Decker Boulevard, told the council in an open letter that county leaders “have taken swift action to resolve a crisis of violence and murder.”

“Many of our neighbors are breathing a sigh of relief,” Huff said in the letter. “The steps that you have taken to create a safe living area to the community are huge and have not gone unnoticed. We hope that all of this can create an international corridor where residents live well, feel secure, and thrive beyond measure.”

A bar owner where some of the incidents occurred and his lawyer, state Rep. Todd Rutherford, have argued that the sheriff’s department shouldn’t be closing businesses but working with the establishments to curb the violence.

The ordinance also dictates that businesses or residences partaking in illegal gambling, illegal sexual activity, bootlegging, drug selling, or being illegal camping grounds can now be deemed nuisances.

Jim Manning, who represents the Decker Boulevard area, said he is “most pleased that Sheriff Leon Lott and the Richland County Council are taking the safety of our citizens so seriously.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.