Judge keeps Club Inn closed for New Year's, chides housing agency's procedural mistakes Nightspot's permit was revoked during Dec. 21 police raid

December 31, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

New Year's Eve won't be celebrated tonight at the Club Inn, the Northeast Baltimore nightspot popular with patrons but unpopular with neighbors weary of its crowds, traffic, loud music and frequent fights and gunshots in the parking lot.

City Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller decided yesterday to keep the club closed, although she sharply criticized city housing officials for ignoring their own rules when they shut Club Inn during a police raid 10 days ago.

Club Inn owner Anthony Faust had hoped to persuade Heller to grant a temporary restraining order against the city, allowing him to reopen in time for a party scheduled for this evening. But she ruled against him on the grounds of safety and public interest, describing the club's hazardous blend of large crowds and a single unlocked exit as "a catastrophe waiting to occur."

She also agreed with city officials that the club appears to have been operating in violation of its zoning permit, providing only for the operation of a banquet hall, and that the club's improper use as a dance hall was attracting large, unruly crowds.

Club Inn's permit allowed it to offer dancing or live music only as an accompaniment to banquets. The club also was not permitted to sell tickets at the door or alcoholic drinks.

Police who visited the club several times during the past few months testified Monday that they saw ticket sellers working at the entrance with a cash register, and a cash bar operating in a back room. An irate neighbor testified that he heard one club event promoted on a local radio station, advertising $10 tickets to be sold at the door. The police said they never saw food being served at such events.

But the biggest sore point for neighbors was increasing violence. Police described five shootings in the parking lot since Sept. 8, including two the night of Dec. 8.

The other unflattering portrait to emerge from the testimony Monday was of the city housing department's handling of the matter.

Heller questioned yesterday how the club received its permit July 28, when the building approved for occupation by up to 1,200 people had only one unlocked and marked exit. It was also approved as a banquet hall even though city officials testified that they saw no apparent kitchen facilities.

Police indicated in their testimony that they had trouble getting the housing department's attention once the shootings began.

Maj. Arthur Smith, commander of the Northeastern District, first wrote housing officials to ask for help after the shooting Sept. 8. He never got a reply. The same thing happened after a shooting Oct. 6, he said.

Later, a housing official called to set up a meeting Oct. 22. But not until after the two shootings Dec. 8 did the housing department decide to take action, planning the Dec. 21 raid with police. Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III accompanied police that night, and told Faust that his club's permit was being revoked immediately.

Henson's department followed the raid with a press release the next day, but apparently was not as assiduous in sending out the proper warnings and notifications that the law generally hTC requires before a permit can be revoked.

Heller said yesterday that the city failed to give proper notice of its action, and she chided Henson for "acting outside the law." She also said housing officials used the wrong part of the city code to close the club.

Heller ordered the city to correct its procedural mistakes by giving proper notice to Faust or the building's owner by 4: 30 p.m. today. Faust will then have 10 days to appeal the revocation of his permit, through an administrative hearing.

A lawyer for the city, Sandra Gutman, downplayed the judge's criticism of the housing department's actions, saying, "She interpreted the rules differently than I did, or the housing department did."

Faust's attorney, Edward Smith Jr., disagreed, saying that Heller's message to the city was that the housing commissioner "just can't go around being the Ayatollah Henson. It's about a guy who has too much power, who needs to be reeled in."

Smith said he will appeal Heller's ruling against a restraining order.

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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