Originally created 07/13/02

Adult bookstore fights zoning ruling in court



A federal judge has taken the application of an adult bookstore under advisement after lawyers from the city and Augusta Video Inc. squared off in court Friday over the legality of its proposed location in Richmond County.

Augusta Video's lawsuit in U.S. District Court is seeking a temporary or permanent injunction against enforcement of the city's adult-entertainment ordinance, saying it violates free speech, as did the Augusta Commission's failure to approve a special zoning request for the business to open on Gordon Highway.

Commissioners voted unanimously at their June 18 meeting - which bookstore attorneys characterized Friday as a "political rally against sexually explicit material" - to deny the store's zoning request to locate in south Augusta.

Augusta Video X-Mart proposes to sell sexually explicit books, magazines, videos and novelties and would be located on Molly Pond Road, at Gordon Highway and Doug Barnard Parkway.

Zoning officials have said the store meets all of the requirements of local law, including distance requirements from schools, churches and bus stops. The property is in an area zoned for heavy industrial business.

Last month, however, the Augusta Commission overturned a recommendation from the city's planning board to allow the store to locate at the Gordon Highway location, despite the absence of any code violations.

Commissioners denied the application based on a city ordinance that allows them to use individual discretion when denying or approving zoning issues.

The bookstore's lawyers challenged the constitutionality of that discretion before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr.

"There was nothing constitutional about the way this was done," said Tom Maddox, one of several attorneys representing the Florida-based bookstore company, G.B.A. Investments Inc.

"The theme was, 'There is just no place in Richmond County for this. Period."'

An oversight in the property records of the Gordon Highway building complicated things in court. Ownership of the land - unbeknownst to Augusta Video - changed hands in late February. AJP Inc., the corporate owner of several south Augusta hotels, transferred ownership of the property to local attorney Stephen Steinberg, attorneys said.

Mr. Steinberg had left work for the day Friday afternoon, and a phone call to his residence was not answered.

City attorneys argued that the bookstore should have to restart the application process under Mr. Steinberg's name because of the discrepancy.

Harry Revell, a city attorney, also said city ordinances give commissioners the authority to deny zoning requests if they are deemed unessential or undesirable to a certain part of the city.

He cited a city study that defined the intersection of Gordon Highway and Doug Barnard Parkway as a "gateway corridor" to the city.

"This intersection sets the stage for first impressions of Richmond County," Mr. Revell said.

"An area of otherwise pristine appearance," Judge Bowen quipped.

"No, sir," Mr. Revell said. "It's an area the city is trying to improve."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.