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Handling Nuisance Businesses

South Carolina law empowers municipalities to compel the closure of a business in cases where the business’s operations harm or threaten the public’s health, safety or welfare. Closing a business, however, comes with considerations ranging from public perception to the legal challenges of an appeals process. Sometimes city governments find success with efforts to communicate about the problems a business has created, stopping short of shuttering it outright. In December, a panel of municipal attorneys shared their experiences during the SC Municipal Attorneys Association Annual Meeting.

Several methods exist for closing nuisance businesses, including revoking the business license. The Municipal Association’s model business license ordinance provides for suspending or revoking the license of a business found to be a nuisance. Municipalities can also employ the “Abatement of Nuisances” law, found at SC Code Section 15-43-10, among other methods.

The panelists — Bob Coler, city attorney for Spartanburg; Jazmon Kearse, police advisor for the City of Columbia Police Department; and Jim  Peterson, city attorney for Florence — described the types of businesses they have been involved in closing because of safety issues, typically bars and nightclubs. 

Coler described the process the City of Spartanburg has used, beginning with a review of how many calls for police service for violent offenses a business has accumulated, a number he said is “often shocking” for those that the city pursues for closure. 

Kearse described a similar process for Columbia — reviewing the number of citations or arrests for things like narcotics or gun violations, and  comparing it to businesses of a similar size or business model. Columbia’s ordinance allows the chief of police to declare a business to be a nuisance based on specific crime data, after which the business license is revoked. In these cases, the crime data for the business in question is a significant outlier, compared to its peers.

“We are able to show by just pulling all that information, that look, we’ve been here for these instances, these several times, so this is an issue,” she said.

Seeking a closure is generally a final step, and the city will first send letters and have face-to-face meetings with business owners to alert them to the local government’s concerns.

Coler noted that sometimes a problem comes out of a club that grows its customer base quickly, and finds itself with a crowded location with insufficient cameras, parking lot lighting, or panic bars installed on the back doors to keep armed patrons from sneaking in through unwatched doors. He said that Spartanburg has found success through encouraging business owners to purchase and use ID card readers, a precaution that can prevent violence.

“A lot of the people who cause problems in clubs don’t want to leave a digital footprint,” he said.

Specific and direct communication about the exact nature of the problem can help, whether it’s something like too much activity at the business location after the time it is legally required to be closed, gun violence or assaults.

For the City of Florence, Peterson noted that relatively few businesses have gone all the way through the license revocation process because of the initial efforts for the city government to communicate with business owners.

“Before we ever start the process, we would contact the business and tell them that we were having problems,” he said. “At that stage, we’ve had a few of them get really defensive and start saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do anything.’ But most of them at that stage are just trying to resolve the problem.”