No Need to Get Nude About It

The owner of Coco's Lounge just wants to run a business. Why are county officials trying to strip him of his livelihood?

For the past few years, attorneys have been wrestling over the fate of Coco's Lounge, a nightclub in north-central Dade. Oddly, though, none of the principal lawyers in the matter has been there after dusk to see the place in, er, full swing. If they dared, they might behold something akin to this scene on a recent weeknight:

Several small groups of men clustering at tables and lounging on banquettes throughout the sprawling club, which pulsates with hip-hop and soul music while radiating neon. Angel, on the bar-encircled stage, familiarizing herself -- or at least her inner thighs -- with the smoothness of the dancing poles. Desire, first checking herself out in the mirrored wall, sashaying across the tiled club floor toward two men sitting in an alcove. A third dancer -- Is it Yo-Yo? Cutie Pie? Or, maybe, Brown Sugar? -- over in a dark corner, her bikini top long gone, administering a lap dance to another happy customer. Typical strip-club behavior.

In a back room, however, owner Ian Davis isn't having a very good time. "I'm trying to keep it nice and everyone's giving me a hard time," grumbles Davis, a Guyana transplant who first invested in the club in 1991 and took over its operations in 1993. Davis is particularly rankled because, he asserts, a strip club has existed at this address, 1430 NW 119th St., since World War II. "They never had any problems then! Why now?" he protests. In the 1980s the location was known as the Bronze Lady; later it was renamed Coco's Lounge. (The club's clientele is predominantly black, as is its troupe of dancers and, for that matter, Davis.)

The legal problems began in 1993: Dade County caught Davis and his partner doing renovations on the property without the proper building permits -- it was going to be "a ladies' powder room," Davis says. Code enforcement officers also accused the club of operating an adult-entertainment facility without proper government approval and shut the place down.

And thus began the battle of Coco's, a now-tangled affair that has wound its way in and out of -- and back into -- the courts, not to mention galvanized a neighborhood of angry residents who would prefer that Davis take his booze and bare breasts elsewhere.

In response to the county's shutdown order, Davis's attorney George Knox filed suit, alleging that Coco's had the right to operate under a 1991 ordinance. The rule, passed by the county commission, requires approval for an adult-entertainment facility unless the club was legally operating at the time the ordinance was passed -- a grandfather clause.

Dade County disagreed with Knox's argument and countersued. Assistant Metro-Dade Attorney Thomas Robertson explains that, since Davis unlawfully tried to expand the club's premises, he forfeited his right to remain open under the grandfather clause.

The sides entered into a settlement agreement in 1994 requiring Davis to take his case to Dade's zoning appeals board to request a zoning variance. The board, after considering testimony from neighborhood residents opposed to the club, rejected the club's request. Davis had one last chance: the Metro-Dade County Commission. The matter was set for consideration last year on April 18.

A cavalcade of opponents, including neighborhood residents and officials from the City of North Miami (the southern boundary of which is the opposite side of 119th Street from Coco's), turned out for the meeting. But just before the issue was scheduled to be heard, the club withdrew its appeal. The neighbors left the commission chambers elated, but wary.

Little did they know that Coco's had executed an agile backdoor maneuver. An administrator in Metro's Building and Zoning Department had agreed to issue Coco's a so-called certificate of use and occupancy under the terms of the grandfather clause. Reinaldo Villar, the assistant director of zoning and permitting, took this bizarre and unexpected action even though it was seemingly at cross purposes with the ongoing code-enforcement case.

The decision came to light several months later. Residents of nearby North Miami, angered that the club had continued to operate, demanded that their city officials do something. North Miami City Attorney John Dellagloria asked zoning lawyer John Shubin to step in pro bono on behalf of the residents; Shubin did a bit of digging and uncovered Villar's deal. The discovery apparently angered the Metro code enforcement and legal staff members who had built the case against Coco's. According to Robertson, the assistant county attorney, Coco's had agreed to submit to public hearings to obtain the necessary zoning variance. "By entering into the settlement agreement, they effectively waived their grandfathering right," he argues, adding, "Villar has professed that he didn't know the settlement agreement existed." (Villar did not return calls for comment.)

This past January, Metro-Dade revoked the certificate of use, saying Villar had erred. Of course, the case didn't end there. Several weeks ago, Coco's filed a lawsuit against the county demanding that its certificate of use be reinstated. Knox says the club is entitled to it. "Coco's decided to reconform the building to its original state and not seek to expand, which means they didn't need a public hearing," the attorney contends. Furthermore, Knox says, Coco's produced sufficient evidence to prove that it was entitled to be grandfathered in as an adult-entertainment facility.

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