Comedy club petition no laughing matter for business owner

COVINGTON - Local business owner Jimmy Clark Jr. wasn't laughing after Monday night's City Council discussion concerning his planned comedy club.

Clark said he was misled by city employees and is now trying to find a way to keep his business venture alive.

But the city's planning and development director says the use isn't allowed under the zoning ordinance.

Clark was seeking a special-use permit for a restaurant/comedy club to be located in C&S Mini-Mall at 3192 Washington St.

Clark said he initially met with an employee in the Building and Zoning Department who advised him the use was allowed, and he proceeded to meet with city inspectors, the fire department and environmental health to get information on code requirements.

Clark said he was not aware that he needed a demolition permit before beginning interior remodeling.

When a building inspector discovered renovations were in progress, a stop-work order was issued.

Planning and Development Director Shelley Stiebling then informed Clark that a comedy club/restaurant is not allowed in a Community Commercial (CC) District.

Clark's property has a dual zoning. The shopping center facing Washington Street, where the club and restaurant would be located, is zoned CC.

The rear of the property, facing Webster Street, contains a mini-warehouse complex and is zoned Highway Commercial (HC).

While a comedy club/restaurant would be allowed in the HC district, it is not permitted in the CC district, Stiebling said.

The rear portion of the property was rezoned to Highway Commercial in 1984 to accommodate a nursery, and after it went out of business, the warehouses were allowed as a permitted use.

Stiebling said the Highway Commercial designation constitutes "spot zoning," as the property is surrounded by single-family residential and residential professional districts.

After his conversation with Stiebling, Clark said he applied for a Special Use Petition to be allowed in the district.

In a memo to the Planning Commission dated Dec. 13, 2007, Stiebling acknowledged that staff had "verbally approved the use."

"The decision by the staff for approving this use was in error based on the ordinance that is approved by mayor and council," she said.

Permitted uses in the CC district include places of public assembly, such as clubs, fraternal organizations, churches, synagogues, mosques or other places of worship and educational buildings.

Stiebling said a comedy club doesn't fit with the other allowed uses, which she described as "nonprofit organizations that are conducting organized group activities."

While the purpose of the district is to provide a "wide variety of sales and services," according to the ordinance, Stiebling said most would fall into the personal service category, such as drug stores, art studios, music studios and offices.

Stiebling said the site also does not have adequate parking. To accommodate a proposed capacity of 215 people, the site would need 107 parking spaces, she said.

Clark proposed shared parking with the majority of parking located on the mini-warehouse site.

But topography between the two business would not allow for connectivity, Stiebling said.

The Covington Planning Commission recommended denial of the petition last month.

But some members of the City Council said Clark deserved an apology and the chance to sit down with city planners and work out a compromise.

Councilman John Howard moved to deny the petition, but the motion failed 2-4.

Councilman Keith Dalton then moved to remand the petition Planning Commission.

However, City Attorney Ed Crudup said the matter would not have to go before the Planning Commission again.

If Clark does not sell food and alcohol, the business would be allowed as a matter of right, falling under the theater category, which is a permitted use in the CC District, he said.

Though Carter said Monday night that he would go ahead with his plan without serving alcohol and food, by Tuesday afternoon he had changed his mind.

He said he intends to apply for a rezoning to HC.

"The business plan that we have in place ... it wouldn't be profitable to do what we want to do as far as being successful if we didn't serve food or alcohol," he said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.