by Lin Rocap
Visitor Question: We have a rented retail storefront on the main street of our town. It sells all sorts of items used by witches and wiccans.
What if any legal steps can be taken to have it closed down?
Editors Respond: Oh my, I wouldn't like that in my town, but probably someone is interested. If not, the store will soon be closed down.
The answer, as you seem to understand, lies in your zoning ordinance. We certainly hope your town has enacted zoning. If so, you need to look at the zoning map to determine the name of the zoning district where this property is located.
Armed with that information, you will need to read the zoning ordinance regulations about that particular zoning district. (If you are not very familiar with zoning, a "district" simply is a group of properties, which may or may not lie near one another, to which the same zoning regulations apply.)
Many towns now have their zoning ordinances online, but if you cannot find it by following a link in the town's website, you will need to visit city hall during business hours to look at a copy. While you are there, determine what staff member or members enforce the zoning ordinance and also the name of the department head who supervises the folks who handle zoning requests and enforcement.
Under each zoning district's name, typically a zoning ordinance lists what are usually called permitted uses. Read that list, pretending for just a few seconds that you want to open a shop such as the one we are discussing. Do you find any category there that would lead you believe you can do this? Is there a category for something to the effect of "other similar uses"? Frequently this is the case, because for retail stores, it is impossible to keep up with every conceivable kind of store.
After that no doubt very uncomfortable exercise, you may have an idea of how easy or difficult it will be to get rid of this store on the basis of the zoning ordinance. We hate to say this, but it might be quite difficult if your town is typical.
Another thing to consider is that if sued, the town probably could not defend a zoning violation based on what the wiccans and witches might claim as a religion. They would argue that this is the same as a Christian bookstore and that if such a bookstore would be allowed, they should be allowed as well. They might well win such a lawsuit.
While you are thinking in the zoning vein though, you might see if there is anything else about the store that you think might violate the zoning ordinance. For instance, they may have a sign that does not seem to comply, or they might not have enough parking.
If zoning does not seem to support what you want to do, here are some other things to try.
First, ask your town's elected officials or paid staff if they have ideas about how to tackle this. They may or may not have what is called a nuisance ordinance, and although we think it is pretty far-fetched, possibly that ordinance might be used to get rid of this land use if (and probably on if) the events sponsored by this shop involve something that would be considered a nuisance.
Second, organize your neighbors who also are offended by this land use. Any kind of political or persuasion process you need to do will likely be effective only if you represent some other people besides yourself.
Third, talk to the landlord if you have not done so already. If possible, learn about the terms of the lease and when it will expire. Put some real but neighborly pressure on this person not to renew this lease, and in fact to evict the tenant at the first opportunity. Emphasize that you now represent people besides yourself. Be sure to try to keep this conversation civil, and attempt to learn what led this landlord to entertain this tenant in the first place.
Beyond this, you will have to keep a watchful eye for opportunities that may present themselves to take advantage of any illegal activity you may observe in this location. Also talk with your town council about how what you consider undesirable land uses can be prevented from locating in your town in the first place.
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