Despite threats that he could be fined almost $2,000 a day, Beaufort Liquidation owner Jeff Lowe plans to display a dozen lions and tigers at his U.S. 21 flea market this weekend.
"This is my building, my private animals, and I will let anybody I want look at them," Lowe said Friday afternoon.
Not so fast, Beaufort County officials counter.
Displaying the exotic pets is "tantamount to operating a zoo" at the flea market, which is not permitted under the zoning for the 5 Parker Drive location, county attorney and deputy administrator Josh Gruber said.
"The fact he's going forward with it is a direct and flagrant violation of county zoning," Gruber said. "He can own and possess the animals at that location because he's had them reviewed and approved by federal authorities. But he cannot use those animals for any kind of commercial purposes."
Earlier this week Lowe posted to the store's Facebook page that he would be reopening Saturday at the Parker Drive location.
Beaufort Liquidation moved back there earlier this year from a retail shop on Robert Smalls Parkway, but has yet to resume its weekend flea market, he said.
The announcement set off a firestorm online about whether Lowe should be permitted to display the animals, and it tipped off county leaders to what they say is using the felines for a commercial purpose, Gruber said.
On Friday afternoon, a county code enforcement officer served Lowe with a written warning that the county will fine him for zoning violations if he opens Saturday, Lowe and Gruber said.
It wasn't Lowe's first warning, Guber said.
That came during a meeting Jan. 6 with county zoning administrator Hillary Austin, Austin wrote in the letter Friday.
During that meeting, Austin approved only retail use, not a zoo or petting zoo, which are regulated commercial enterprises, according to Gruber and county documents.
Advertising the flea market by noting the animals will be on display turns that display into a commercial zoo that Lowe is making money from, Gruber argues.
Lowe scoffed at the warning and said he will "happily" pay the fine.
"We're as legit as we can get, and it's driving Hillary (Austin) nuts that we've figured out something to do that she can't get us for," he said. "I'm loving it."
The fine can be up to $500 per violation, and up to $1,920.50 when statutory fees and court costs are included, Gruber said.
Each day the flea market is open with the animals on display would earn Lowe at least one new violation, he added.
The controversial businessman has butted heads with county leaders before.
Last spring he lost a heated battle with County Council to rezone the Parker Drive location to permit his outdoor flea market.
He even found himself in a physical scuffle with a uniformed Marine after one meeting.
Council members ultimately decided jet noise from neighboring Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort was too big a concern to allow the oudoor sales, and Lowe later closed the flea market.
Since then, Lowe has made waves with his growing roster of exotic animals, drawing both ire and support from local animal lovers.
Now Lowe says the latest tussle with the county is further evidence the county is "persecuting" his business.
"Once again Beaufort County is just spitting in the face of progress," he said. "They don't want anything here they don't control."
Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.
- Beaufort Liquidation prepares for reopening, with lions and tigers, March 31, 2015
- Beaufort Liquidation owner to add lions, tigers to flea market, Nov. 5, 2014
- Beaufort Liquidation to close following county zoning dispute, April 15, 2014
- Lowcountry Flea Market set to close under zoning compromise, March 4, 2014