Judge rules Starship can open


It was a long time in the making, but all that ended April 19 when Coweta County Superior Court Judge Jack Kirby ruled in favor of Starship Enterprises in its lawsuit against Coweta County after county commissioners last year denied a business license to the Starship Adult Novelties and Gifts location on Ga. Highway 34 at Thomas Crossroads.

In his ruling, Judge Kirby reversed the county’s decision to withhold Starship’s business license and ordered the issuance of a business tax certification to the company contingent on three stipulations. Those include Starship’s compliance with county ordinances pertaining to commercial businesses, that the company conduct and provide monthly audits of its retail inventory and sales for the first year of operation followed by quarterly reports thereafter and that the Coweta County Business Tax Dept. have authority to make unannounced visits at its discretion.

Starship CEO Kelly Rogers in brief comments Tuesday said he was basically happy with the judge’s decision, adding that “I think it was the only way he could have ruled.” Rogers added that he will keep fighting the county’s sexually-oriented business and obscenity ordinances on the federal level.

There is no set opening date for the Starship store. Rogers said he is currently working through the details pertaining to the opening.

It was back in late 2008 that Starship began the process of obtaining a business license for the Thomas Crossroads location. But it was at a meeting of the Coweta County Commission in January 2009 that proved that the regulatory stars had not aligned for Starship.

District 4 Commissioner Rodney Brooks at that meeting told more than 300 anxious residents in attendance that the business license application was being denied because Starship had been determined to be a sexually-oriented business that is not permitted in the commercial area.

“Based on what (county staff) have seen, and what they have been told, staff believes the proposed store is a sexually-oriented business and, therefore, cannot operate at the proposed location without rezoning,” Brooks said in a prepared statement. “Our county staff has informed the board that they will be denying this business license application at this time.”

Brooks’ remarks were followed by applause and cheering from the standing room-only crowd that packed the county commission chambers, the foyer outside and had spilled down the stairway into the first floor lobby.

Many of the residents taking the podium that night were ministers and residents of the Sharpsbug and Newnan areas. Many said their comments had been amended by the county’s up-front decision to deny the business license application. Some warned that a lawsuit could follow, but asked commissioners to stand their ground regardless.

The praise heaped on commissioners that night was contrasted the following day by Rogers, who insisted that he would stock the store and not back off from his intention to operate his business.

The county commission soon followed its denial with the adoption of new ordinances relating to sexually-oriented businesses and obscenity.
Meantime, Starship appealed the commission’s decision on April 13, 2009 in front of the Coweta County Tax Rate Review and Appeals Committee.

The appeal hearing ended as it began, with only questions and no resolution and without the committee forwarding a “Yea” or “Nay” recommendation to county commissioners. The nearly 5-hour appeal hearing revolved around the previous denial of Starship’s business license by Business Director Director Eva Wagner and Starship’s contention that the decision for the denial had been made by Jan. 20 when more than 300 residents packed the commission chambers.

In May 2009, at a second meeting of the Tax Rate Review and Appeals Committee, the situation for Starship began to take on a different light when committee members voted 4-1 to recommend to county commissioners that the company be issued a business license to operate its Thomas Crossroads location.

It was toward the end of approximately one hour of statements and questions that committee member Gary Arnold added a component to the discussion that had not been stated in any of the previous Starship hearings. Addressing Business License Director Eva Wagner on her decision earlier this year to deny the business license, Arnold said he believed she had no other alternative but to decide against issuing it.

“Your job would have been in jeopardy,” Arnold said, referencing unnamed individuals in county leadership positions.

Arnold went further, questioning why Starship had been given the indication as late as Jan. 15 that everything was in order to receive its license, yet on Jan. 28 the walk-through by county staff did not occur. That was two days after the adoption of the county’s new sexually-oriented business and obscenity ordinances that were said to prohibit Starship from opening at Thomas Crossroads.

“We don’t have a good explanation why the Jan. 28 walk-through didn’t happen,” Arnold said, also referencing the county’s previous statements regarding Starship’s Jonesboro store as a contributing factor in denying the business license. “We should be evaluating his Coweta operation, not the one in Jonesboro. Has he been treated fairly, whether we like it morally or not, as a new applicant? We haven’t done the right thing by this applicant.”

When put to a vote minutes later, all but committee member Ronnie Clothfelter voted to recommended issuance of the business license.

The final action between Starship and the Coweta County Commission came June 16, with the company’s final appearance before the board prior to the lawsuit being filed. As was the case nearly six months earlier, approximately 250 opponents of the business filled the commission chambers and the foyer outside.

Commission Chairman Paul Poole opened the agenda item by informing the crowd of Starship opponents that the board would not be entertaining any public comments on the issue. County Administrator Theron Gay followed with a brief notation that the board could grant or deny the business license. His comment was followed by a motion from Commissioner Rodney Brooks that the business license be denied. The vote was unanimous.

Starship attorney Alan Begner after the meeting said he would prepare a legal challenge to the decision.