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Liquor licenses under scrutiny
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They all brought their problems to the Savannah City Council:

The owner of a non-compliant boarding house who just wants to do the right thing.

Entrepreneurs who want to serve alcohol in one of the most notorious locations in Savannah.

A bar owner who wants to serve liquor but can’t because of a church that may or may not be in compliance with city codes.

As rain poured outside, the council tackled some potentially explosive topics May 21. Cans of worms were popping open everywhere.

At the center of it all was attorney Harold Yellin. Yellin represents both Amy Lynn Stafford, owner of The Wormhole, a bar in the 2300 block of Bull Street, and Ike Lewis, owner of a 67th Street boarding house.

Stafford already has a license to serve beer and wine and wants to serve liquor, as well. However, the Soul Saving Station Church operates just 65 yards from The Wormhole, and city ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol within 100 yards of a house of worship.

"It was only a matter of time before an issue like this came before you," Yellin told the council. "Mrs. Stafford met with a representative of the city revenue department before she signed a lease, before she spent money improving the site.

"She asked for a measurement," Yellin said. "She was told there would be no problem in selling beer and wine and alcohol."

Stafford signed the lease and opened her establishment, only to learn that a church was less than 100 yards away, but Yellin doesn’t fault the revenue department. He says the church is located in an office on the second floor of an office building and doesn’t resemble a church.

"When they came out to measure, they didn’t see a church," Yellin said. "The reason is that there is no sign of a church. No steeple, no stained glass, no cross."

That’s not all the church lacks, Yellin said. Church leaders failed to obtain a certificate of occupancy and a building permit, both required by the city when the office was changed into a church.

"The city had no way of knowing the church was there," Yellin said. "I asked the fire marshal if it was legally there."

Yellin insisted several times that it was not his intention to get church officials in trouble. "My intention was to know why the church chose to be there," he said.

An investigation revealed that the Soul Saving Station Church leased the space in 2003. Yellin said as a church, it falls under the definition of space for assembly use.

"The certificate of occupancy is the city saying the building is certified for occupancy," he said. "That is critically important when you’re talking about assembly. This property does not have a certificate of occupancy, and it shouldn’t be here."

Yellin said the ordinance prohibits alcohol sales 100 yards from a church building. "I’ve included photographs," he told the council. "It’s not a church building, it’s an office building."

City Attorney James Blackburn assured the council that the space is indeed a church. He suggested that Yellin meet with church officials to resolve the issue. "To deny a church is very difficult," Blackburn said.

Mayor Otis Johnson said the council should follow the city attorney’s recommendation to deny the liquor license, but agreed that the ordinance may be flawed. "To me (the liquor ordinance) is kind of hypocritical," he said. "If it’s alcohol, it’s alcohol. If they’re going sell alcohol, it doesn’t matter if it’s 101 feet or something less."

Johnson noted this is the second time a liquor license has been denied because of the Soul Saving Station Church. "Each time, it’s been used to deny the right to serve mixed drinks and alcohol in that area," he said. "They need to go ahead and identify themselves as a real church.

"I want to go on record that this congregation must identify itself and meet all safety codes necessary to occupy that building as a place where the public congregates," Johnson said. "If they can’t do that, they need to find another place and stop being in the way of business in a business tract."

Thomas Square Neighborhood Association President Virginia Mobley told the council that The Wormhole was opened despite objections. She said both Yellin and Stafford were made aware the church was there.

Mobley said the church has a sign that clearly identifies it as a church with regular services. "To say she moved forward thinking she could get a license is a little misleading," Mobley said.

Mobley said the zoning board of appeals was assured The Wormhole was going to be leased for art exhibits and fashion shows. "We accepted the use of alcohol at a leased facility begrudgingly," she said. "You can imagine our surprise when we saw an ad that starts off ‘Love Sucks – An Anti-Valentine Event’ and listed a game of Naked Twister."

Some business owners seem to think they can do as they please despite ordinances, Mobley said. "They came in under the guise of one thing and turned out to be something highly different," she said.

Yellin said he went back to his notes to prepare for the public hearing. "This place is a music hall that serves beer, wine and alcohol," he said. "The goal was to present live music.

"It’s not open every day of week and last week hosted a square dance," Yellin said. "I’m not sure where this fits in with the characteristics Miss Mobley gave it. Her memory is very different from mine."

Alderman Jeff Felser asked for a full accounting of whether or not the Soul Saving Station Church is in violation. He said if the church is in violation, it should be reviewed for all property code enforcement and brought into compliance within 30 days.

Another request for a liquor, wine and beer license also caused concern. Anton and Tammy Lynn Withington are seeking the license for T. Rex Mex, a full service restaurant that would be located at 217 W. Broughton St.

"That is the site of the former Frozen Paradise," Alderman Van Johnson said. "I have real concerns about this type of activity there."

Problems with crime, noise and other concerns at the Frozen Paradise plagued the city council for years. The business, owned and operated by African Americans, eventually relocated amidst complaints of racism and unfair treatment.

"We heard then that this is not the right use for this location," Johnson said. "We were told it’s not conducive to residents or businesses around them. If it was not right for the Frozen Paradise, why are we being approached by someone else?"

Johnson asked that the motion be continued for two weeks so the staffs of the city revenue department, city attorney and city manager have a chance to investigate. The mayor agreed with Johnson. "I have very, very strong feelings about this," he said. "It was such a troubled place in the past."

"People offered to take their businesses outside of Savannah because we would not take action against Frozen Paradise," Alderwoman Edna Jackson said.

"One thing I will not support is double standards," Alderwoman Mary Osborne added.

"I, too, share their concerns," Felser said. "As far as I’m concerned, what’s good for one is good for all."

The request was continued to the June 4 council meeting. Blackburn said that the T. Rex owners should prepare a plan of operation to be presented at that time.

Once bar concerns were addressed, the council considered the city’s boarding houses. Yellin asked the council to rezone a 67th Street boarding house from single-family/residential to Residential-Institutional-Professional on behalf of his client, Lewis.

The building has been a multiple-tenant structure since the 1930s, and was licensed as a boarding house in 2001, said Jim Hansen, Metropolitan Planning Commission director of development services.

Lewis told the council he had come forward on his own to see if the boarding house was in compliance. When he learned it was zoned incorrectly, he asked to have the zoning changed.

Although Lewis sought to do the write thing, most boarding houses in Savannah are illegal. "This is showing a bad light on us," the mayor said.

Zoning Administrator Randolph Scott Sr. told the council that at least 125 boarding houses are operating in the city at the present time. "Eight are legal," he said.

Thomas asked Lewis if he conducted background checks on residents, and Lewis assured him he does. He said the boarding house has a total of 10 rooms. "It was a group home when we purchased it," he said.

The boarding house has not been in operation since November, Lewis said. It needs renovations before it can be inhabited and those are being done, he said.

Most of the buidling’s residents in the past were employees at Memorial Health, which is just across the street, or elderly patients who needed access to the hospital, Lewis said. "There is a need for what we do," he said. "We do run a nice clean operation.

"In the economic times we live in now, we’re going to put a lot of people in a lot of tough places," Lewis said. "If we don’t address these issues, we’re going find a lot people in shelters."

Alderman Larry Stuber said he had inspected the property and said he supported the spot rezoning. The council agreed to approve the request, but wants to tackle the problem of illegal boarding houses.

"We’ve been talking about this for years," the mayor said. "Those people who need those places ought to be assured that they are legal and safe and up to code."

In more pleasant action, the council graciously accepted the "Most Mannerly City of 2008" award, a designation that has resulted in quite a bit of publicity. However, it turns out that Savannah was the winner by default.

Cynthia Grosso, founder and owner of the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette, presented the award, a sparkling Tiffany crystal vase that is inscribed with the "Most Mannerly" title. Grosso said the award was established about 30 years ago and turned over to her school in 2007 when its creator, etiquette expert and author Marjabelle Young Stewart, died.

"Charleston won the award 12 years running," Grosso said. "In 2008, the vote was cast and the top two were Charleston and Savannah. Charleston decided to share the award - from the most mannerly to the most mannerly."

In accepting the award, Mayor Otis Johnson noted that while mannerly, the city of Savannah doesn’t like being the runner-up in anything and encouraged residents to vote for Savannah in 2009. "I hope we win it outright," he said.