Cheshire Bridge, strip clubs, and the $50 Million Dollar Question: Corrupt or inept?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want to buy a strip club.

It’s not that I have a moral quandary about them–I went to one for a birthday party about two years ago, and I find the whole concept a little, I dunno, boring? Wouldn’t you rather watch naked people without a lot of other clothed people standing right next to you?

I am even less amenable to the idea of buying a whole bunch of strip clubs. And definitely not all of the strip clubs on Cheshire Bridge.

Yet, this is what the Atlanta City Council is really, really excited about doing in two weeks.

Bachelorette parties: the one thing between Cheshire Bridge and skyrocketing property values. Or maybe it was the largest real estate crash in history. Who cares.

Bachelorette parties: the one thing between Cheshire Bridge and skyrocketing property values. Or the real estate crash. One of ‘em.

If you haven’t heard, the Atlanta City Council has a plan to boot all the adult business off of Cheshire Bridge by zoning them out of existence. They make it sound about as simple as banning smoking, like they’ll all just close up shop, be replaced with a Starbucks, or 20 Starbucks’es, and I can enjoy lattes and watch traffic two blocks from my apartment. So far, the debate has been framed about whether or not we do or don’t like strip clubs, or Starbucks, or something.

This is really about taxpayer money, not “clean-up” or “revitalization”

From my perspective, as an attorney, and specifically, a real estate attorney (although I go about half and half between wills and real estate) I believe the question has been framed completely wrong, and the City Council’s plan is either incredibly inept, or shockingly corrupt. I’m not completely sure which would be giving them the benefit of the doubt, but if forced to consider the reality of what they’re about to do, they (and their voters) would discuss this question differently.

So far, it’s been about “cleaning up” Cheshire Bridge, or the merits of “gentrification.” Fellow lawyer Anthony Kreis wrote, “Cheshire Bridge is in need of some serious gentrification” and “I’m just not a fan of smut peddlers in the middle of valuable Atlanta real estate.”

That’s actually not the issue–the issue is whether taxpayer money should pay for it. Because, see, taxpayers will pay for it.

Part of my work, in fact, the majority of my earnings this year, has been in condemnation work–that’s where the government basically comes in, says to you, “we’re building a road through your house,” and they kick you out and pave your house over. I can tell you that, contrary to the feelings of many people with now paved-over houses, this is entirely legal and entirely constitutional. There’s just one, itty-bitty teeny-tiny almost not worth mentioning point:

THE GOVERNMENT HAS TO PAY A TON OF MONEY TO DO IT.

When the DOT widens a road by ten feet, they might cut a check to an owner for $10,000.  Knocking out a commercial tenant costs millions. Millions. Per tenant. As in one.

Why has this not been mentioned? This is not a debate about kicking out “smut peddlers.” That’s not the city’s plan.  Instead, we’re paying to have them relocated. City council member Wan even stated the expectation that the strip joints will just move to another part of the city.

That move costs the city money. A lot of money. It also means the city is effectively subsidizing, to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars, whatever developer is lined up to build on Cheshire Bridge.

Council Member Alex Wan made the understatement of the year when he said that “I’d totally expect there most likely to be some litigation from an affected party.” If he means litigation when the city doesn’t write each business a check for several million dollars, then yes. If a potential client called my office with facts like these, I would have trouble not giggling with joy over the phone when I e-mailed them my retainer agreement. Many of the affected parties already have lawyers, who I assume are also giggling.

This suggests to me that either Wan is perfectly happy to spend city money subsidizing whoever is waiting in the wings to redevelop Cheshire Bridge (because you know we can trust a developer who is unable to simply buy out the district on their own, or conned the city into paying for it!) or Wan was not swayed by the city attorney, who, given the law, I’m sure had a more sobering opinion than our elected officials.

Hey guys, so, would you mind paying my district 50 millies so all the business we don't want can move to your district? You will? Sweet! Kthx!

Hey guys, so, would you mind paying my district 50 millies so all the business we don’t want can move to your district? You will? Sweet! Kthx!

The 5th Amendment says you cannot seize that stripper pole without paying for it

Either way, I think the voters of Atlanta should know just how seriously the Supreme Court of Georgia takes property rights, and the likelihood the city will have to pay fair market value for this mass relocation. In the case of Mann v. Georgia Department of Corrections 282 Ga. 754 (2007), a convicted child molester was forced to move from his home in order to comply with the law requiring that sexual offenders not live within 1000 feet of a childcare facility. It’s hard to imagine a less sympathetic plaintiff or a more sympathetic government interest–impossible, actually–but the government lost, and the court said the government could not force him out of his house without paying for it. The court determined that because he was effectively ousted from the property, there had been a regulatory taking.

Not only that, the justices were unswayed by the government’s argument that the owner could lease the property to be used by someone less horrible, writing:  “Although the State contends that appellant’s ability to rent or sell his house eliminates or minimizes the economic impact of OCGA § 42-1-15(a), appellant’s testimony established that he and his wife did not purchase the Hibiscus Court property for rental purposes and that neither he nor his wife are real-estate speculators.”

Sound familiar? Maybe like those who are arguing that the strip clubs and car washes can just sell the property or convert the property to a conforming business–no harm no foul?

Groups behind this measure cite irrelevant legal arguments

The group behind the push to oust the adult businesses from Cheshire Bridge has broached this subject. The court cases cited by the Lindbergh Lavista Corridor Coalition in their “Fact Sheet” linked to by Council Member Wan do nothing to show that the city can avoid paying for these businesses when forcing them to shut down, making me think they did not actually hire a lawyer to give an opinion, or ignored that lawyer.

  • The first case, Henry v. Cherokee County, 290 Ga. App. 355 (2008), dealt with a plaintiff who expanded their non-conforming uses. That’s not the issue here. The issue here is “downzoning,” where a landowner is prevented from something they were doing already, rather than prevented from expanding or doing something new (a fundamental question in a regulatory taking case).
  • Lindberg Lavista Corridor Coalition also cites BBC Land & Dev., Inc. v. Butts County, 281 Ga. 472 (2007), which is likewise not even close, as that case deals with whether exemptions from zoning are transferable. We already know the strip clubs are grandfathered in, BBC Land just means they can’t sell that status to someone else. Again, not the issue.
  • Lastly, in Flippen Alliance for Community Empowerment v. Brannan, 267 Ga. App. 134 (2004), the court wrote, “In order to establish a grandfathered, nonconforming use, it is necessary to show that the land was used for the nonconforming purpose prior to the enactment of the zoning ordinance,” and thus, the landowner did not succeed in the claim for grandfathered status. But the Cheshire Bridge strip clubs were there well before the 2005 zoning ordinances barring new ones. Oops.

And those are all the cases in their fact sheet.

None of them come close to showing that the city can dodge its obligation to pony up fair market value for a gigantic swath of valuable commercial property. If Atlanta residents are queasy about helping to pay for a new football stadium, I cannot imagine how they would feel if they knew that they’re about to buy a red light district. And some car washes.

You’re about to get sold a bridge. Cheshire Bridge.

I would rather my tens of millions go to filling in potholes, putting a tram on the beltway, and more bike lanes. Regardless of your feelings on the morality of adult businesses, it’s incredibly cynical to use city money to pay for them to relocate closer to residents with less political clout. If a developer wants to purchase Cheshire Bridge and fill it with condos, so be it; developers can make offers, because that’s the free market.  Just let them use their own damn money.

Alex Rowland, who happens to live on Cheshire Bridge, and who also does not care about your bachelorette party, is the owner of Rowland Legal, a general practice law firm typically focused on estate planning and real estate. This post is not meant, and should not be relied upon, as specific legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. Only by communicating directly with a lawyer can you be confident that legal advice is appropriate for your specific situation.