City rejects strip club, seeks judge’s ruling

Matt Algarin

The fate of the city's first strip club may soon be in the hands of a judge.

"There is some important information that the city is unsure of," City Land Use Attorney Scott Shirley told city leaders after City Manager Maryann Ustick denied the application in an Oct. 4 letter.

During Monday night's City Council meeting, Shirley brought forth a motion that would call for the city to seek a declaratory judgment in regard to the proposed strip club along Airport Road. Essentially they would be asking a judge to make a ruling on whether or not the representatives from The Runway have the legal right under a 2010 federal settlement agreement to open the club.

A declaratory judgment, sometimes called declaratory relief, lets a judge arbitrate a dispute by studying the facts. The judge, however, would not prescribe a way forward. Instead, the judge, after analyzing the controversy, simply issues an opinion declaring the rights of each of the parties involved.

City leaders in Destin and representatives from the proposed strip club called The Runway have been butting heads since an application for the development was first submitted in January.

Through a series of legal letters from the city's attorneys, there have been numerous questions raised about the operators of the club and their ability to open the establishment, especially after the 2010 murder of Terry Stephenson, which is whom the city entered into a federal settlement agreement after Stephenson filed a First Amendment lawsuit in 2008.

"One of the things they would like to do is operate under the auspices of the settlement agreement the city entered into... with Trident Operations and the Oasis of Destin," Shirley said. "The issue has arisen over a somewhat complicated corporate history behind this entity and the complicated history of the business ownership."

City leaders agreed and approved Shirley's motion to move forward with the declaratory judgment with no discussion on the matter and a unanimous vote.

Prior to the meeting, representatives from the proposed club attempted to clarify the ownership concerns through an Aug. 30 letter, which detailed how the applicants obtained ownership and an influential interest in Trident Operations.

But that attempt to clarify ownership didn't satisfy the city's legal team.

"Frankly, we've had a number of exchanges of information, and frankly it's been very carefully reviewed by myself and our counsel from Orlando," Shirley told city leaders. "We're not convinced that the information is conclusive and quite frankly we don't have the ability to vet the authenticity of that information through the administrative process."

Ustick’s letter to local attorney Dana Matthews, who represents the strip club, stated that the city has deemed the strip club application "incomplete." She wrote that the application was "otherwise denied until such times as the issues identified herein are resolved to the satisfaction of this office." As part of her letter, Ustick writes that "this denial is without prejudice," and that the applicant can resubmit their application if the they prove they have the “legal right” to open the club under the settlement agreement.

When reached for comment, Matthews declined to comment on the matter.

As for a resolution, the city does not know how long it will take for a judge to review the case.

"There is no way of knowing how long this will take once it's in the circuit courts hands," Ustick said.

City Manager Maryann Ustick denied the strip club application based on five issues:

·         Whether or not the current applicants have the legal right to open the club under the settlement agreement.

·         Ownership of Trident Operations by Destin AR, LLC, which is owned/controlled by other individuals, cannot be verified as it relates to the application.

·         The interior layout plan contains elements and dimensions that are reliant on the settlement agreement, but are not consistent with the requirements of a city ordinance that governs sexually oriented businesses.

·         Operators of the proposed club plan to sell alcohol, which is only allowed as it relates to the settlement agreement.

·         There may be "other" operations that club owners plan to engage in that are allowed under the settlement agreement, but not under city ordinance.