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City reviews zoning as more illegal nightclubs pop up

DAVID RATCLIFFE: A proposed community theater should not be labeled a nightclub. Photo by Nell Redmond

To the city of Charlotte, it would be a nightclub.

To developer David Ratcliffe, it would be just a community theater that serves alcohol.

The difference of opinion is just one example of the ongoing struggle between developers and property owners and the city over what exactly qualifies as a nightclub.

A revision to the city’s definition of nightclub is in the works, but it’s unclear whether the changes will mean it will be easier, or more difficult, for businesses to operate as nightclubs.

When asked how the ordinance that defines nightclubs might be changed, Katrina Young, Charlotte-Mecklenburg zoning administrator, did not want to speculate. First, she said, the city wants to hear from a citizens advisory group, which will hold its first meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Government Center.

“We’re going to look at it in totality,” she said. “Whatever needs to be changed, we are going to try to do it all at once.”

In the meantime, developers like Ratcliffe have no idea of what’s to come and are hoping not to lose tenants.

Ratcliffe, co-owner of Charlotte-based Louise Ratcliffe Inc., said his tenant, Charlotte artist Curtis Chisholm, wants to open a community theater in the Derita area at a shopping center at West Sugar Creek Road, North Graham Street and Mineral Springs Road.

Chisholm also wants to turn the place into a lounge that serves alcohol. It would be a private club catering to the “over-50 crowd,” Ratcliffe said, and potential members would be subjected to a three-day waiting list and criminal background check.

But, according to the city’s zoning laws, the proposed uses would make the business a nightclub, a use for which the site is not zoned. The city defines a nightclub as a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol and also has entertainment.

Chisholm, therefore, cannot open the theater until Ratcliffe can get the site rezoned. But Ratcliffe says he doesn’t know for how long Chisholm can uphold his lease while waiting around for a rezoning.

“Time is really the enemy,” Ratcliffe told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission’s zoning committee last month. “My tenant signed last October. I don’t know how long he can hang out — or me, either.”

The property is zoned business, a classification that requires a nightclub to have a 400-foot separation from a residential district. It neighbors a warehouse and a home that sits more than 400 feet away, Ratcliffe said.

The distance is measured from his business to the edge of the residential district — not to the home — and that places the business within the required 400-foot separation. Ratcliffe requested a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment in January but was denied.

Ratcliffe has met with city planning staff members to work out remaining details in hopes that they will tell the zoning committee to recommend approval to the City Council.

Ratcliffe believes planning staff members will recommend approval, although they didn’t tell him one way or the other what they would do. Planning department spokeswoman Laura Harmon said she did not know if staff members would recommend approval because she was not in the meeting. A vote by the zoning committee is expected during a special meeting Sept. 6.

The focus on revisiting the definition of nightclub comes as the city battles illegal versions of such businesses. Some observers say such businesses have been popping up as people — for example, restaurant operators — look to make money in a tough economy.

“When does a restaurant become nightclub?” Harmon said. “A lot of restaurants are trying to supplement their income by having entertainment activities. Right now, that is kicking them in another category of use.”

Take Cosmos Café, at 8420 Rea Road in Ballantyne. It was cited in August 2010 for violating the 400-foot separation. Cosmos was later issued variances allowing the nightclub to continue to operate in its current location, 125 feet and 350 feet from two residential areas.

Gold Palacios Mexican Restaurant and Bar, at 6736 N. Tryon St., was also given a notice of violation last year after code inspectors said it was operating as a nightclub and was too close to a residential neighborhood. The Zoning Board of Adjustment denied a variance request in September.

Reviewing the definition of a nightclub will likely be a lengthy process. Young recently finished up an ordinance change – restricting the heights of buildings in residential districts — that involved a citizens advisory group. It was projected to take four months to complete.

It took two years.

The process will involve more than one meeting of the citizens advisory group. In the end, Young said she hopes to find a solution that will “provide quality of life for citizens.”

But Ratcliffe said his tenant doesn’t have two years to wait for a change to the ordinance. And he doesn’t think a community theater should be termed a nightclub in the first place.

“That’s the city definition,” he said. “I have never used the word ‘nightclub,’ but that’s the only word they were using in the variance hearing.”

Harmon said Charlotte has become more of an urban community, which has resulted in the need to revisit some city policies, like those restricting nightclubs from being too close to neighborhoods.

“Everything is closer together, yet we have established neighborhoods that we need to protect,” she said. “It’s all a balancing act.”

Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].

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