Jon Jon’s headed back to Warren ZBA

Topless bar's representatives could seek new variances before zoning board March 13

By: Brian Louwers | Online Only | Published February 14, 2013

Representatives of Jon Jon’s could go back before Warren’s Zoning Board of Appeals next month, seeking variances that would enable the city’s last remaining topless bar to reopen after a four-year lawsuit-induced hiatus.

“We did submit an application. We had some questions and some clarifications that were needed,” said attorney Vincenzo Manzella, representing Jon Jon’s. “We want it as built, so there are certain variances as to the building code that would need to be met, and then the use variance. Some of the concerns of the city as far as lights streaming out of the tower and things, that’s scaled back. The way the building is right now is what we’d like to open as.”

According to an attorney representing the city of Warren, Jon Jon’s had operated on Mound north of I-696 as a nonconforming use since September 1986, when the city's zoning regulations were passed. For the last four years, it has stood as a shuttered, unfinished shell at the corner of a residential street amid a series of court battles.

The owners first sought variances through Warren’s ZBA to expand a cooler and modify the roof in 2009. The modifications were initially approved, but the city ordered construction to stop after inspectors determined the work went beyond the granted variances.

As a result, officials said the business forfeited its right to operate as a nonconforming use. Warren’s sexually oriented business ordinance, enacted after Jon Jon’s originally opened, would now preclude a topless bar at that location.

Lawyers representing Jon Jon’s later sought relief in Macomb County Circuit Court, but a judge ruled in the city’s favor last summer.

The Michigan Court of Appeals refused to hear the case and dismissed a request filed on behalf of the business on Jan. 31.

The owners also pursued a federal lawsuit against the city, alleging the Warren City Council denied a request to transfer the bar’s liquor license on the basis of “personal animus, political calculation or racial discrimination.” The lawsuit stated the owners are of Arabic or Chaldean descent. The city won the case, but the matter remains pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Warren ZBA Secretary Caren Burdi said Feb. 13 she’d heard the owners had applied for new variances but said she had not yet seen the formal request. 

Burdi said she would likely schedule the matter for a public hearing at the ZBA’s next meeting at 7:30 p.m. on March 13 in the auditorium of the Warren Community Center on Arden.

“We look at basically the zoning and what they’re asking to vary from, and try to balance business with the zones that are around it,” Burdi said. “We’ll have before us the zoning ordinance that they want to vary from, and how they want to vary from it.

“We’ll have a full hearing. Residents are always welcome and encouraged. We’ll listen to the petitioner. We’ll listen to the residents, and then try to do our best,” Burdi said.

Attorney Scott Bergthold, an attorney hired by the city who specializes in municipalities and First-Amendment law, told members of the ZBA two years ago that the scope of construction at Jon Jon’s violated the nonconforming use provision of Warren’s zoning ordinance. Photos taken during construction showed a gutted structure that officials claimed had “far exceeded” a rule that limits modifications of nonconforming structures to 30 percent of their value.

Bergthold said the “30 percent rule” existed to keep nonconforming-use properties from operating in perpetuity, so that “growth and development sought by the ordinances can be achieved.”

Lawyers for Jon Jon’s argued that city inspectors were aware of the work underway at the site, and that the city had granted approvals for it at various levels.

Ahead of the ZBA’s hearing on the new variances, Manzella said the owners want to resume business.

“They want to be a good neighbor and run a business in the city,” Manzella said.

But Mark Liss, a former member of the Warren City Council who opposed the transfer of the liquor license, said he didn’t feel the potential new owner had enough experience in running a “high-risk” business.

Liss was previously named individually in the federal lawsuit, but has since been removed as a litigant in the case.

“I think Jon Jon’s should move on and level that building,” Liss said. “It’s time that they stop trying to hurt the neighborhood.”