Washington County Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford has determined that Mouse’s Ear Exotic Sports Bar owner Ralph Browning will not be allowed to rebuild the Gray strip club consumed by fire early this year.
Browning showed up at Rutherford’s office Tuesday and filled out a building permit application one month short of a set deadline. But the permit was denied on the spot due to the county’s finding that much more than 75 percent of “the fair, cash market value of the structure” would have to be rebuilt — a threshold set in the county’s zoning laws shortly after the club originally opened off Tenn. Highway 36 near Bobby Hicks Highway.
Browning intended to put $750,000 into the 5,000-square-foot property, according to the application. County records indicate the value of the structure in March 2012 was about $306,000.
“He showed up and we had a lengthy conversation,” Rutherford said Wednesday. “He came with the intention of obtaining a building permit, but I notified him his business qualified as an adult business and that type of establishment no longer was allowed in that district.”
Three days after the Jan. 10 fire, a county assessment found about 98 percent of the structure had been destroyed. Meanwhile, Browning hired Knoxville’s Construction Engineering Consultants to evaluate the property on Oct. 28.
“Based on his documentation and my evaluation, he is not allowed to rebuild on that site,” Rutherford said. “It did not appear that he intends to appeal. I think he was very realistic about the situation. Being a businessman, he certainly has legal advice. I did talk to him about the potential return on that property.”
The cause of the blaze was never determined.
County commissioners representing the 7th District were on hand Wednesday at the zoning office, where Rutherford, who is running against County Mayor Dan Eldridge next year, explained the ins and outs of the situation.
Commissioners Mike Ford, Mark Larkey and Roger Nave were on hand. Larkey and Nave came with prepared statements.
Larkey said he was “in 100 percent support” of the county’s zoning laws and ordinances.
“This business was operating in a non-conforming manner, therefore I’m very pleased that this parcel will return to a use that is consistent with neighboring properties,” he said. “I would like to thank Mike Rutherford for his leadership and attention to detail regarding this issue and the result it has produced.”
Nave said he was certain news of the business not coming back will “greatly relieve” many residents in the Gray community.
“While the loss of any business is always a tragedy, this one will be a relief, as many residents felt that it was just not a good fit for the Gray community,” he said. “However, I join in with many citizens of Washington County in wishing the owners the best luck in all their future business endeavors wherever they may be.”
Ford thanked Rutherford for his efforts and said “ditto” following his fellow commissioners’ statements.
Telephone messages left for Browning were not returned by the end of business Wednesday.
Ralph Browning’s uncle, John Browning, applied and received building and beer permits and opened the Mouse’s Ear in fall 1993. At that time, the business’ request to change the zoning at that location from residential to business was approved, but county officials say no one knew it was going to be a nightclub.
“When they came in, they said they wanted to put in a day care center, and as soon as the gavel dropped at that meeting we started hearing it was going to be a nightclub — an ‘adult day care center,’ ” Rutherford said.
The county filed a lawsuit against the owners in 1996, claiming the business basically snookered officials and construction of the club should be halted. But Circuit Court Judge Thomas Seeley ruled in favor of the owners. The county appealed that decision and lost.
“They went out and set up a double-wide,” Rutherford said. “They opened it, but it burned. Miraculously, they put a roof on it, rewired it, and in 48 hours they’d rebuilt the footprint."
Rutherford said if Browning has not cleaned up the site by the first of the year, he will ask him to do so.