Damage after the Mouse's Ear burned in January (Press file photo).
With a hard deadline fast approaching, a Gray strip club could soon lose its right to rebuild after a devastating fire earlier in the year.
Washington County Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford said his office has still not received an application for a building permit from the Mouse’s Ear Exotic Sports Bar’s owner nine months after a Jan. 10 fire gutted the club’s interior and closed the business.
If the property, which sits at the intersection of Bobby Hicks Highway and Tenn. Highway 36, remains unused for more than a year, Rutherford said the property owner would lose the status that allows him to operate the club outside the current zoning laws.
“They are a qualified non-conforming use today,” the zoning administrator said. “If they don’t do anything before the anniversary, they would lose their right to reconstruct whatever they want back there.”
In July, Mouse’s Ear owner Ralph Browning told the Johnson City Press he intended to rebuild the establishment, but said he still had not received information from his insurance company regarding the status of his claim.
Multiple calls and messages to Browning Monday and Tuesday were unanswered.
The Mouse’s Ear-JC’s Facebook page contains an update made July 16 promising the return of the long-standing business.
“We like to thanks everyone who has supported us for the last 6 months and we want everyone to know that the mouse’s ear is coming back home to the tri cites,” the message reads.
The last post on the page, made on Aug. 8, refers visitors to the “Miss Nude Tennessee” contest being held at the Mouse’s Ear’s sister club in Knoxville, also owned by Browning.
The strip club could lose its non-conforming status anyway, if an insurance company determines more than 75 percent of the building was destroyed.
If the business has to be reconstructed from the ground up, county officials said it would no longer be considered the same business that was grandfathered in when the county’s zoning regulations were enacted.
On a large-scale building like the Mouse’s Ear, Rutherford said the county department could not perform the inspection to determine how much of the building has been destroyed, and said he was awaiting a determination from Browning’s insurance company.
Complicating Browning’s problems, Rutherford said if the ruined building isn’t cleaned up soon, the county could order him to clear the rubble.
“Our men are in the area all the time, and they’ve said there has been no cleanup, it’s static,” he said. “Due to the nature of the danger of the burned building, we usually give businesses about a year to settle everything with the insurance company, but we’ll order the cleanup.”
Rutherford said small automotive repair businesses allowed under non-conforming use protections often fall into similar circumstances after fires.
“We would order the cleanup and expect them to do the work and pay for it,” he said. “Now that the new environmental court is operational, if they still don’t clean it up, then we could issue a citation and let a judge tell them to clean it.”
Rutherford said the zoning regulations and the cleanup procedures are something any business owner in the area should know.
“There are responsibilities in business, there’s an unwritten law that says you’re supposed to know what you’re doing,” he said. “In this case, the Mouse’s Ear was provided with regulations. We have explained the non-conforming use status to them, so they know what the requirements are.”
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