In hookah bars located at a busy DeKalb County corner, late-night crowds puff on flavored tobacco, dance to heavy beats and sip on mixed drinks.
Much to the chagrin of nearby residents, four such establishments are open near the corner of Clairmont and Briarcliff roads.
Residents complain about loud music, traffic and trash from the businesses. They also say some of the hookah bars are operating illegally and unsafely.
None has a permit to function as a nightclub with dancing and musical entertainment. Two of them — Food Therapy and Therapy Lounge — were denied permits to stay open past 12:30 a.m., and the owner is now fighting the county’s decision in court.
The others, neighbors say, are ignoring the rules and keeping their doors open into the wee hours.
LUV Lounge is still doing business long after midnight even though a building expansion invalidated its previous late-night permit, according to government documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request.
There are other problems as well.
Mint Ultra Lounge failed a fire safety inspection in June but remains open, records show.
Representatives for Mint and LUV couldn’t be reached for comment.
“These places are not safe,” said Barbara Vargas, who lives about a mile from the intersection. “How do (DeKalb officials) not notice there are nightclubs going in … and they don’t have permits to be there?”
The county government has issued citations against some of the businesses for overcrowding, indoor pyrotechnics, unpermitted construction and outdated business permits.
Three other bars in the same shopping center – Arif Cafe, Aroma Lounge and Club Pure – shut down because the county concluded they had changed from restaurants to nightclubs without permission.
For a club to be allowed to stay open late, it has to pay a $400 fee, have public hearings and get approval from the County Commission.
Hookah bars, where patrons inhale flavored tobacco through a water basin and drink alcohol, have gained popularity as late-night hot spots.
Some bars were originally approved as restaurants, and they’re now using their previous business permits to operate as nightclubs.
They say they shouldn’t have to go through a more rigorous process enacted by the county in 2008 because they were already doing business before then. But that provision doesn’t apply if an establishment changes uses, such as from a restaurant to a nightclub, or if the business name changes.
“If they’re in someone’s backyard who doesn’t want it there and it’s disruptive, that’s a problem,” said Dan Wright, a member of the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals.
During one recent weekend, crowds of party-goers at Mint and LUV, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were still going strong at 3 a.m. after paying $10 or $20 for admission.
At one point, someone lit a sparkling hand-held firework called an ice fountain near Mint’s bar area, eliciting cheers from the crowd. Off-duty police paid by the clubs stood ready in their DeKalb County patrol cars in the parking lot in case anyone started trouble, though no one did.
Nadine Rivers-Johnson, a property manager and chairwoman of the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals, said she understands residents’ concerns.
“Your home is the biggest investment you make in your life, so quite naturally things that make it more or less valuable should be a concern,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to move into a neighborhood where there’s an establishment operating outside the ordinances of the county.”
About 225 residents signed an online petition to oppose Tamar Telahun’s application to extend operating hours at Food Therapy and Therapy Lounge. Residents said they feared an increase in noise, traffic, trash and crime. The businesses remain open while Telahun’s lawsuit opposing the county’s September decision to deny late-night permits is pending.
“If I had known they didn’t want me to be here, I wouldn’t have expanded,” said Telahun, the owner of the bars.
Telahun said she worries that residents are targeting hookah businesses because club owners are often from Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“There’s some people that will say nothing good happens after midnight,” said Telehun, who is Eritrean. “Yes, if you’re 70. But if you’re in your 30s or in your 40s and you work all day, maybe going home, taking a shower and coming out to enjoy your lounge is what you (need).”
But DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader, whose district includes the Clairmont-Briarcliff area, said neighborhoods are deprived a voice in their communities when nightclubs don’t follow proper procedures.
“In many cases, these businesses are intrinsically incompatible with the neighborhoods they’re in, and that’s the source of the conflict,” he said.
Government officials could take stronger action against nightclubs that refuse to comply with the county’s rules, Rader said.
Their liquor licenses could be revoked, and fire marshals could order them closed for safety hazards.
Code enforcement officers could issue more citations, Rader said.
“We’ve been trying hard to get them to be more rigorous in that enforcement,” he said. “These dangerous behaviors could ultimately end up in some horrible tragedy as a result of overcrowding and the misconfiguration of spaces.”
Don Broussard, a former DeKalb Planning Commission member, said the county isn’t enforcing its fire safety rules and building codes.
“We’re going to have a repeat of what happened in Oakland somewhere in this county,” said Broussard, referring to a California fire in which 36 people died during a Dec. 2 party in a warehouse not permitted for residential or entertainment use.
Broussard filed a lawsuit that resulted in Club Pure closing in 2009.
Police are focusing on nightclubs — not just hookah bars — that pose the most serious public safety risks, said DeKalb Police Capt. Alex Mears. Officers want to work with businesses that are willing to come into compliance, he said.
“Once you start not following the rules, you start putting the public in jeopardy,” Mears said. “The good news is, most places want to (be compliant). They’re there to make money. They don’t want to lose money.”
The county shut down Ledet Restaurant, also known as Aroma Lounge, in April after a fire inspector found multiple fire code violations, including overcrowding, inadequate exits and indoor pyrotechnic use.
“This is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” wrote DeKalb Fire Inspector John Jewett in an email to the fire marshal. “Local ordinances and model building/fire codes are in place to prevent these types of issues.”
As a result of fire code violations and the club’s change of use to a nightclub, the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals revoked Aroma Lounge’s certificate of occupancy Dec. 14.
The club’s attorneys and general manager argued that they should have been given a chance to make amends.
“We don’t shy away from the fact that our clients may have made mistakes in the operation of their business,” said DeWayne Martin, an attorney for Aroma, during his presentation to the board. “If, in fact, there isn’t an imminent threat or risk to public welfare, which there presently is not, there is no basis to reject the certificate of occupancy.”
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