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Nuisance Ordinance That Sparked Backlash From Black Business Owners Has Stalled

The proposed amendment to existing law loses momentum as the nightlife industry, city leaders, and former law enforcement voice their concerns.

The controversial nuisance ordinance that would close down any business with two violations in less than 24 months has been stalled in committee for the foreseeable future. (Sean Davis/Getty Images)

It’s back to the drawing board for the proposed Atlanta ordinance to crack down on “nuisance properties.” The Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee held the controversial piece of legislation in committee at its last meeting. This means that the ordinance cannot be voted on by the City Council until it makes it out of committee again.

In May, the City Council introduced an amendment to the current ordinance in conjunction with Mayor Andre Dickens’ new nightlife crime division. The update calls for the city to close a business or residential property that is deemed a nuisance by the municipal court twice in 24 months. It’s a faster remedy than the current six-step process that calls for a lengthy collaboration between the city, the municipal court, and the Atlanta Police Department.

Backlash from small businesses was almost immediate after the amendment was introduced, with many business owners saying the update would penalize local restaurant and bar owners for factors outside their control.

Back in 2020, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms moved to strengthen the policy by establishing a cross-departmental group to streamline the city’s response and empowering the city’s overall ability to remove or revoke alcohol licenses for nuisance violations.

Juan Farmer, who owns Sea Salt in Virginia-Highland and its new location off Howell Mill Road, hires off-duty APD officers for security at his restaurants every night. He told Capital B Atlanta that he wants the city to do more to support business owners who want security. Farmer said nightlife is a major attraction that brings in tourists and generates tax revenue for the city, but it is treated like a burden, not an asset.

“We’re taking money out of our pockets to make sure [customers], they’re OK,” Farmer said of the efforts being made by himself and other small-business owners to have adequate security. “Our patrons are OK, but the city of Atlanta keeps saying that we’re doing something wrong when we’re helping fund the city of Atlanta.” 

Language was adopted into the legislation that provided more specific parameters around what an owner can be held accountable for when there is an incident around — but not inside — their business.

For example, a crime has to have occurred within 4 feet of a business’s exterior in order for the owners to be held responsible. Similarly, if a crime happens in a parking lot that is adjacent to the business, the owner of the parking lot is the one responsible, not the business owner.

These amendments are aimed at protecting business owners from some of the concerns brought on by the ordinance, but some — including former law enforcement officers — are saying it is not enough.

Karl Smith, a retired Atlanta police officer, said that he thinks the city is going in the wrong direction with the ordinance and amendment. Smith owns the Roman Agency, which places off-duty officers to work as security for businesses and residential clients. He agrees the ordinance will negatively affect the nightlife industry because the impact will hit business owners who want support from the city to create a safe environment for their customers.

However, Smith is encouraged by the city’s efforts to have a dialogue about the issues.

“I am for what the mayor’s doing as far as having the classes and the meetups to talk about [public safety] and the group that he’s formed,” Smith said, referencing the training day work session held by the mayor’s nightlife division. 

The workshops were led by Phillana Williams, co-director of the Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment; Timothy Peek, APD deputy chief; and Roderick Smith, Atlanta Fire and Rescue chief. In addition to providing business owners with information on policy and regulations, they also included first aid, CPR and alcohol awareness training.

District 9 council member Dustin Hillis, who chairs the Public Safety and Legal Administration committee, introduced the amendment.

In a June 6 work session, Hillis said the new bill would strengthen the nuisance code by adding temporary closure to the list of remedies that can be taken by the municipal court once a property has been deemed a nuisance. 

“You are not going to get pulled in front of the court for a nuisance unless you have multiple violent felonies occurring on your property, aggravated assaults, homicides, etc.,” Hillis said, to address rumors that a business could be shut down after one incident.

Capital B Atlanta reached out to Hillis for comment, but he did not respond. Businesses that are involved in “any nuisance which tends to the immediate annoyance of the public in general, is manifestly injurious to the public health or safety, or tends greatly to corrupt the manners and morals of the public may be abated,” according to language in the current ordinance.

Council member Keisha Sean Waites was a co-sponsor for the bill, but later had her name removed. The Post 3-At Large council member said the language in the nuisance ordinance is still too vague and leaves too many unanswered questions. 

“My name was on that nuisance law because I do believe that we have to put some stronger measures in place to address bad actors,” Waites said, adding that she believed the policy to be flawed because there was nothing in the text of the bill that explained how a business gets put on or taken off the nuisance list.

Waites also pointed out that it is not just Black business owners who are concerned, but small-business owners throughout the city who feel they can be unfairly classified as a nuisance.

The future of the ordinance is unclear until the public safety and legal administration committee moves on the legislation. The bill has been held in committee by the sponsor since Aug. 8. 

“I think we need to table it,” she said. “I think we need to start from scratch, figuring out, OK, where are the biggest issues and concerns?”