Ralph Browning, owner of the Mouse’s Ear Exotic Sports Bar that burned in January, said he would like to start by taking what is left of the existing structure down and rebuilding it completely.
“We pretty much have to,” Browning said. “There’s not much left that can be used.”
However, Washington County Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford said the remnants will need to be assessed prior to any construction to determine whether the fire damage has exceeded 75 percent, which is the legal determining factor regarding the business’ future in its current location, which is a general business district zone.
“Browning did contact our office today and I spoke with him,” Rutherford said Monday afternoon.
If the damage is determined to require more than 75 percent of the building to be reconstructed, Washington County Attorney John Rambo said Browning could be denied a building permit based on provisions in a county zoning ordinance.
The establishment was “grandfathered in” during the late 1990s, and Rutherford said the location of the business is in conflict with the ordinance.
“There is a burden of proof he will have to meet,” Rutherford said. “We pretty much respond to all applications immediately. The clock ticks as fast as he moves. We don’t solicit permits. We are here and they are required to purchase them. As fast as he moves, we move. The clock starts ticking as soon as they give us something to go by. At this moment, we have nothing in hand.”
Rutherford said his office will investigate whether the damage caused by the fire breached the 75 percent factor.
“We haven’t investigated that at this point and the building still remains as it was the day of the fire, so we’ll ask to be allowed access to his property to inspect it,” Rutherford said. “We’ll determine at that time whether he meets the 75 percent mark or not.”
Rutherford said he reviewed the specific statute and county zoning resolution pertaining to the replacement of the building with Browning.
“We went over the current regulations for rebuilding,” Rutherford said. “We are sending him a complete set of county regulations via email. He did not give a specific start date.”
Rambo said Browning has not contacted his office to request a building permit.
Browning said he would like to see the business reopened in its current location by late August.
“At this time we are preparing to begin renovation as soon as possible,” Browning said. “Our plans are to try to reopen by the Bristol Race.
“I’m excited and worried all at the same time,” Browning said.
Browning’s plans to rebuild the business have to be submitted to Rutherford’s office for review.
“It could take a couple of weeks or longer after we receive them,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford said Browning is in control of initiating the process and how long it would take to get the structure rebuilt, if it’s determined legal to do so.
“The clock starts ticking when they give us something to go by,” Rutherford said. “At this moment, we have nothing in hand.”
Browning said he is concerned for employees, who have been out of work.
“We want to get our employees back to work up there and we would like to get all of the independent contractors that were working for us in that area back to work, also,” Browning said.
Employees got separation notices so they could receive unemployment and independent contractors were invited to perform at Browning’s Knoxville location.
“We feel like we have done as much as we possibly can,” Browning said.
Information from the insurance company still has not been received, Browning said.
“We have been dealing with insurance ... and still haven’t finalized those things with our insurance company,” he said.
Browning estimated that the business has put close to $500,000 into Washington County with property taxes and sales taxes.
“I do want to say that we were there for almost 19 years before this happened,” Browning said. “We’ve had a great relationship up there with the people in that area. We appreciate all the support that they gave us.”
Rambo said the county’s next step will be based on Browning’s actions and intentions going forward.