County claims little power to close violent nightclubs

BEAUFORT -- Changing the zoning or revoking the business licenses of nightclubs where violent crimes occur might be the only way Beaufort County officials can protect residents living nearby.

County administrator Gary Kubic said the county is concerned about escalating violence at area businesses but has little power to close the businesses, including the Studio Seven nightclub in Burton that has been the site of a number of violent crimes -- including shootings -- in the past year.

"When you have a business that is having an effect on the neighborhoods in the area, and deputies are constantly being called to the area, something needs to be done to address that," Kubic said.

"But when there is inappropriate activity going on at a business, we don't have the capability to regulate that. The only real avenue we have is through business licensing. But everything else ... the liquor license is handled by the state, and the rest is handled by law enforcement."

The county attorney agreed.

"There really isn't any mechanism at the county level that would allow us to shut down any kind of business ... or deal with a business that may be described as a nuisance," said Ladson Howell, county staff attorney.

"Through the business license ordinances, we can take civil action against a business owner that doesn't pay his accommodations tax and withdraw his license."

The Town of Hilton Head Island is considering ordinances to control clubs.

Hilton Head is considering a 3 a.m. closing time for all bars on the island -- after a string of violence at south-island bars that culminated with two New Year's Day shootings at Club Life -- and an ordinance that would allow the town to shut down businesses considered a public nuisance.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he will urge the Beaufort County Council to adopt a similar law.

"There has to be a regulatory side to what we're doing," he said. "The Town of Hilton Head did a pretty good job with those ordinances, but I want a 2 a.m. closing time for clubs in the unincorporated parts of the county."