When Smallcakes opened in Liberty Square shopping center in May, the franchised cupcakery wasn’t technically allowed to do so.
That’s because the bakery isn’t included in a list of approved uses for the Evans site; neither is a tattoo parlor nor a car rental agency that have been operating there for years.
According to Columbia County planning documents, Smallcakes, Old Tyme Tattoo & Barber and Budget/Avis Rent-A-Car are illegal uses for the Washington Road shopping center. The discrepancy, however, is considered to be a county oversight.
Smallcakes co-owner Lori Pitts, who lives in the Atlanta area, said she didn’t find out about the situation until a month ago when the landlord informed her. The business, the brainchild of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars star and Hephzibah native Jeff Martin, is the second bakery since 2012 to open in that same space.
“It was my understanding that at this point, it was kind of a technicality,” Pitts said. “Hopefully, it’s not a big deal. We are doing well there, and I think the center has been really good for us.”
The county planning manager, Nayna Mistry, said her department is taking administrative action by working with property manager Sherman & Hemstreet Real Estate Co. to bring the businesses into conformity and ensure that no one is forced out of the center.
The issue arose this fall when Sherman & Hemstreet applied for a sign variance to add space on a sign that fronts Washington Road across from the Evans Wal-Mart. It was then that a “number of permitted use irregularities” were discovered at the 4.8-acre center, according to county documents.
County research also showed that Budget Rentals had been operating on the site without paying its occupational tax for five years, though Mistry said that issue also is being addressed. Messages left for the office manager were not immediately returned.
“We want to make sure that everything is matched up and handle everything at once,” Mistry said.
Because the retail center is zoned for planned-unit development, any business approved for the property must be specifically defined. The shopping center opened in 2006 with more than 20 allowed uses, including restaurants, medical clinics, banks and auto service stations.
In 2010, the center went through foreclosure and was acquired by SAP Two Investments LLC the following year for nearly $2.1 million.
“The narrative that was originally put there was not really comprehensive, and it was kind of vague,” said Chris Farrow, a commercial agent for Sherman & Hemstreet. “All we’re doing is redoing a variance to allow these business(es) to legally be in there.”
Farrow said he expects the owners to complete their proposed list of allowable uses by February, when the Columbia County Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on the item.
“It really just depends on what the planning commission allows us to do,” Farrow said. “If they deny us putting these uses in the narrative, then (the businesses) could be forced out. I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”
The county’s deputy administrator, Glenn Kennedy II, said he also can’t see a situation in which the businesses are forced to leave the center.
“They all seem to be good neighbors,” he said.
Mistry said the county’s rapid growth and staff changes in recent years are likely to blame, at least in part, for the glitches.
“I would say that’s part of the growing pains, just to keep up with how things are,” she said. “Obviously, the county doesn’t want to keep delaying a lot of businesses and owners on what they want to do. Usually our response time is pretty quick, and we want to keep it that way. That doesn’t mean that errors don’t happen from time to time, or things get overlooked.”
Her department is seeking ways to prevent similar problems from emerging in the future, she added.
“We’re working with the building department to try and get a process in place where certain things are being checked before being issued,” Mistry said, “just to make sure we’re keeping on top of it.”