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March 14, 2013

Zoning board denies variances for Jon Jon’s

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

WARREN  — The future of topless dancing at Jon Jon’s remains in limbo.

To the approval of most in an energized crowd gathered for a public hearing before the Warren Zoning Board of Appeals March 13, the board denied a request for two new variances that would have given new life to the city’s only strip club.

The unanimous decision by seven members of the board to forego waiving restrictions that now prohibit the adult business from operating so close to a residential neighborhood and next door to a daycare center was the latest setback for the property’s owners, embroiled in a protracted legal stalemate with the city that has left the blighted, unfinished structure shuttered and empty after construction ground to a halt in 2009.

Jon Jon’s had operated at the site on Mound north of I-696 since the 1970s. It was permitted to remain in business as a nonconforming use at that location after the city’s zoning ordinance governing adult entertainment was adopted in 1986.

In 2009, the owners sought variances through Warren’s zoning board to expand a walk-in cooler and raise the height of the roof. The modifications were initially approved, but the city ordered construction to stop after inspectors determined the work went beyond the granted variances.

As a result, officials said the business forfeited its right to operate as a nonconforming use, and Warren’s zoning laws now make it illegal to operate a topless bar at that location.

Lawyers representing Jon Jon’s later sought relief in Macomb County Circuit Court, but a judge ruled in the city’s favor last summer.

The Michigan Court of Appeals refused to hear the case and dismissed a request filed on behalf of the business on Jan. 31.

The owners also pursued a federal lawsuit against the city, alleging the Warren City Council denied a request to transfer the bar’s liquor license on the basis of “personal animus, political calculation or racial discrimination.” The lawsuit stated the owners are of Arabic or Chaldean descent. The city won the case, but the matter remains pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Speaking on behalf of Warren Property Investments, LLC, which owns Jon Jon’s, attorneys Vincenzo Manzella and Peter Lucido argued that denying the new variances would create a hardship for the owners because there is nowhere else in the city for the business to go.

“It is probably the best location in the city because it has always been used as an adult business prior to the enactment of the ordinance,” Manzella said. “There are no available locations. There is no place to go. It’s clearly a hardship.”

Stacey Cerget of FEPM, LLC said her company specializes in zoning use changes and property management. She appeared on behalf of Jon Jon’s and said she attempted to survey 100 nearby property owners to gauge their feelings and concerns about the business.

Cerget said 37 surveys were completed, all of which — including those critical of Jon Jon’s — were submitted to members of the Zoning Board immediately prior to the hearing.

Although some of those surveyed opposed Jon Jon’s, Cerget claimed most of the residents she met were indifferent about it. She alleged others even uttered racial slurs, apparently aimed at the bar’s ownership.

But the vast majority of those who addressed the board from a crowd of about 150 gathered for the meeting — including at least four local pastors and an imam — spoke about the potential negative impact of allowing Jon Jon’s to reopen.

“It seems to me like they’re asking you to bend over backwards. We’ll leave that to the dancers south of Eight Mile,” said resident Oscar Zamora, who lives on Chicago Road.

Barbara Sollose, president of the Central Homeowners of Warren neighborhood association, said the owner’s latest request was “just ridiculous” given all that had transpired.

“It’s not our fault they spent a lot of money and don’t know how to follow the rules,” Sollose said. “How many courts do they have to go through? How many times do we have to be here and how many years do we have to put up with this garbage?”

Reed Pyrek said he has lived in Warren with his wife for 45 years and that he’s always been against adult businesses in his neighborhood.

“As the owners of Jon Jon’s stated they want to be a good neighbor. I say to them, good neighbors don’t act irresponsibly,” Pyrek said. “It’s not about race. It’s about morality.”

A few members of the audience spoke out in support of Jon Jon’s, including Warren resident Sandra Douglas, who said she worked there to support her children and pay for college.

“I do know that Jon Jon’s is being made out to be pretty much a brothel. It is not,” Douglas said. “There was a time when I was a single mom and nobody helped me. I got a job there. I was able to raise my children. Just because someone has to do gentlemen’s entertainment for a while, it doesn’t make them a whore. It doesn’t make them a tramp or a prostitute.”

Board Secretary Caren Burdi said her decision to deny the requests came down to the question of whether the specific variances sought for that location were justified and not whether adult businesses belong in the city.

“The issue here tonight is does the petition meet the criteria,” Burdi said. “It’s not a popularity contest.”

Burdi said board members had to consider six factors that were also addressed at the beginning of the hearing by attorney Scott Bergthold, the city’s out-of-state legal expert on matters concerning municipalities and First-Amendment law. The criteria included whether the property could be used as currently zoned, whether or not any hardship was self-imposed, whether the property was unique, whether it was a detriment to nearby properties and whether granting the variances was necessary to preserve the owner’s property rights.

Bergthold told the board the decision to request the variances was likely a move to set up a constitutional law case centered on Jon Jon’s right to exist.

Cerget claimed any available space for Jon Jon’s to move in Warren would require variances of some type to satisfy the city’s zoning laws.

Asked whether the owners would consider opening another type of business at the Jon Jon’s site, Manzella said,  “Not today.”

“We’ll regroup, and likely we’re going back to court,” Lucido said after the vote. “The city’s attorney predicted that.”

Steven Watripont, the board’s vice chairperson, was absent from the meeting and Chairwoman Judy Furgal was excused from voting on the matter after she disclosed her involvement in a legal dispute with a client represented by Manzella.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.