Coming Up Empty
Six long years ago, when Darla Gideon first thought of opening a little strip club on I-45 north of town, she never figured she'd end up arguing about parrots.
A ton of legal fees later, she's still arguing about parrots. But what's even more odd, she's got Sam Nuchia chief justice of the 1st Court of Appeals, former Houston police chief and archconservative upholder of all that is morally right ruling in favor of a strip club in a fight against the sheriff's department. (Theologians regard this as the fifth sign of the apocalypse.)
What she still doesn't have is a strip club. But even with the long, odd road she's traveled, hope springs eternal.
When Gideon first planned to open a place called WebWorld, she and her lawyer knew the rules: They couldn't operate within 1,500 feet of any church, dwelling or school.
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The only relevant item near their proposed site was a seemingly abandoned building. Actually, there wasn't much “seemingly” about it the structure had little inside on the first floor, and one of Gideon's employees climbed a ladder to take pictures of the second floor. Nothing there but bare stud walls; no plumbing, no electricity.
So it was a little surprising when the Harris County Sheriff's Department refused to issue a sexually oriented business license because of that empty building.
The barn-like structure, WebWorld's lawyers were told, was a parrot shop, and the owners of the shop occasionally lived on the second floor, and planned to make it their home as funds came in.
“I guess they were camping out, since there was no electricity or even a toilet,” says Gus Pappas, attorney for WebWorld.
There were no parrots in the building at the time, either, but that was because the owners were on vacation, Pappas was told.
While any Monty Python fan might've spent time pondering a quote to fit the strange situation maybe “That parrot's not dead; he's just pining for the pjorn” Pappas had a client to represent.
The ordinance in question states pretty clearly, it seems that any residence within 1,500 feet of a proposed club must have been occupied or operating for at least 30 days before the SOB application is filed. So Pappas quickly sued.
He managed to get rid of some, but not all, of the potential jurors who said they hated strip clubs for being godless homes to predators and perverts. Meaning he was facing a jury that included at least some people who absolutely detested what his client did for a living.
He still won.
“The fact that people ruled in favor of a sexually oriented business shows how strong my case was and that the facts supported our side,” Pappas says.
Trouble was, 215th State District Court Judge Levi Benton disagreed with the jury. He overturned the verdict, saying there was insufficient evidence to support it.
So it was on to the appellate court, where WebWorld faced a panel headed by Nuchia, the square-jawed law-and-order man who's been a hard-core conservative both as a cop and on the bench. Pappas couldn't have asked for a worse judge.
He still won.
The county tried to argue that a sexually oriented business could be refused a license even if there was only an intent to inhabit a nearby building; the 1st Court panel ruled that intent wasn't enough.
County attorney Michael Stafford says this case marked the first time a state court had to interpret the 1,500-foot buffer-zone section of the city's 1997 ordinance, so it's not surprising that there's been some different rulings.
“A case involving issues of first impression usually is difficult for a court to decide,” he says.
His office will appeal the decision, but that doesn't mean that they're the ones who are dragging things out.
“All that the sheriff is doing at this point is defending the judgment that was issued in the sheriff's favor,” he says, referring to the trial-court ruling (but not, naturally, to the appellate court's somewhat opposite decision).
“They're just trying to rewrite the law,” says Pappas. “They'll keep this going until we give up or run out of money.”
So the dream to build a strip club lives on. And what about that other dream, to live above a parrot shop? It's dead. And not just pining-for-the-pjorn dead. It is no more, it has ceased to be, it's expired and gone to meet its maker. It's kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible.
In other words, the barn-like building is for sale, as it has been for a couple of years with no takers.
Then again, it lives on in the form of this lawsuit.
It seems some dreams whether they be of porn or parrot shops, or lawyers generating legal fees from old cases never die.
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