New nightclub ordinance draft adds teeth

April 24, 2014 10:48:48 AM

Carl Smith - csmith@cdispatch.com

 

A new draft of an ordinance regulating nightclub operations contains several new life safety provisions, including rules curbing establishment overcrowding and ensuring access to functional, unobstructed emergency exits in structures. 

 

A copy of the newest working draft obtained by The Dispatch shows the county aims to establish a regulations committee, comprised of Oktibbeha County's sheriff, fire coordinator, administrator, attorney and a citizen, to suspend or revoke operating permits for nightclubs after violations are recorded. 

 

County officials began drafting the ordinance after a March shooting injured five people at Club Rock, an establishment located a few miles outside of Starkville on Rockhill Road. 

 

An Oktibbeha County Circuit Judge issued a temporary injunction against the business' operation after investigators said they received credible information that a retaliatory shooting had been planned at the business. The injunction remains in effect indefinitely after Judge Jim Kitchens continued a nuisance abatement hearing against owner Larry Fair Monday as Fair hires legal representation. 

 

Kitchens did not set a hearing date but said one could be scheduled in either late May or early June. 

 

As with previous drafts, the current working ordinance establishes clear operating hours - noon to 1 a.m. - and states patrons "shall be out of the building and off the premises" 30 minutes later. It also adds provisions against exceeding capacity limits set by the state fire marshal or county fire coordinator and mandates that all points of egress remain obstructed. 

 

The new draft also gives the regulation committee authority to suspend or revoke operating permits of any establishment found guilty of two violations of any county, state or federal regulation within 12 months or three total violations over any given time. 

 

Operating permits for such businesses approved by the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department would be required if supervisors approve the ordinance. 

 

Appeals may be made to the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors within 10 days of any notice filed by the regulations committee. 

 

Oktibbeha County Fire Coordinator Kirk Rosenhan said the provisions are still a work in progress and fall well short of stricter rules set by national fire safety standards. 

 

"They're not outlandish in a sense. We're basing them off of similar rules used within the city, as related to occupancy levels," he said. "Even now, Oktibbeha County has not adopted any fire codes in conflict or additional to the rules set out by the state for public assembly. The rules are just that: rules." 

 

Past incidents involving life safety issues at Club Rock have drawn the ire of law enforcement and supervisors alike. During the county's first meeting after the March shooting, District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard said the business "hands down ... has the worst track record over a period of time of any other establishment" in District 2. 

 

Supervisors sought a temporary injunction against the nightclub in 2011 after police and fire representatives said the establishment posed a safety hazard to patrons. In December of that year, then-Sheriff Dolph Bryan played a video to supervisors that documented the chaotic moments after the venue's crowd, panicked by what was thought to be gunfire, attempted to flee in unison through a partially blocked exit. 

 

Recalling the incident, Rosenhan said patrons piled on top of each other at a significant choke point while attempting to flee the facility. 

 

Officials from the state fire marshal's office later inspected the building, along with another nightclub, BJ3, in 2012. Supervisors agreed to develop an ordinance regulating capacity and enforcing safety codes at venues that do not have alcohol licenses but allow patrons to "brownbag" liquor. Tougher rules, however, did not come to fruition. 

 

Based upon witness interviews, investigators believe a crowd of approximately 1,000 people were gathered on Club Rock's property when 20 shots were fired from three separate areas in the facility's parking lot last month. 

 

Deputies turned to "community chatter" to piece together that night's events after investigators found a shortage of cooperative witnesses. 

 

The facility has a maximum capacity 189 people, officials said earlier this month. Comparatively, the largest Oktibbeha County Chancery Courtroom has a 126-person capacity. 

 

Following Monday's hearing, Fair said he made needed changes to the facility after fire inspectors visited his establishment in 2012.

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch