John Black is a warm, convivial fellow. A shopkeeper with a fondness for irreverent t-shirts that poke fun at the strictures of customer service, Black seems like the sort of chap who’d prefer a good guffaw to a heated debate about the finer points of municipal codes.
It is, however, a rather humorless quarrel over code enforcement that has recently preoccupied Black in his role as the co-owner of J&R Liquidations – a discount retailer that he his brother Joseph run at the former Burlington Manufacturers Outlet Centers (BMOC).
A clearinghouse for everything from personal care products to stuffed teddy bears, J&R Liquidations is one of several businesses that has breathed new life into the outlet centers, which suffered a long, slow decline since their heyday during the ‘90s. Particularly popular have been a series of parking lot sales that John and Joseph have staged in the capacious parking areas around BMOC – a relic of the time when vehicles, including passenger buses, from all over the region were queuing up along the interstate to reach the outlet centers in Burlington.
With a veritable grab bag of merchandise uniformly marked down to $1 an item, these monthly extravaganzas have attracted thousands of customers to BMOC since their debut.
These sales have also garnered the scrutiny of Chris Reynolds, a code enforcement officer who is responsible for addressing city code violations in that part of Burlington.
Black recalls that his own tug-of-war with Reynolds began less than a year ago when the code enforcement officer dropped by the store to discuss the outdoor liquidations. Things got off to an inauspicious start when Reynolds apparently referred to the monthly events as “yard sales” rather than “parking lot sales.”
“I told him it wasn’t a yard sale, and he told me it was,” Black recalled in an interview last week. “Then, he handed me a business card, and I threw it back at him and told him to get out of my store.”
The bottom line
Although Black recounts this exchange with a bit of a chuckle, the response from the city’s code enforcement officer was much less light-hearted. Over the next several months, Reynolds would make several more visits to J&R Liquidation and hand out multiple fines over the retailer’s parking lot sales.
According to Black, the pretext for these penalties has been that the outdoor events are encroaching on the store’s mandated ratio of parking spaces to indoor floor space. Under Burlington’s unified development ordinance, most retail establishments require a minimum of one parking space for every 200 square feet of building space.
Black points out that his business has exponentially more parking than it actually needs thanks to the relative glut of parking spaces that the former outlet centers still boast. The shopkeeper adds that, by his own estimate, his store’s monthly parking lot sales generally occupy eight spaces or so within the ocean of asphalt that surrounds the former outlet centers.
“I have ten times the required parking spaces. I’m running a good business that employs about 15 people, and which brings a lot of tax dollars into the city.” – John Black, J&R Liquidations business co-owner
Black is also quick to note that he and his brother originally began holding their outdoor liquidations to avoid congestion inside their store once retailers were allowed to reopen after the inaugural months of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have ten times the required parking spaces,” he store’s co-owner goes on to explain. “I’m running a good business that employs about 15 people, and which brings a lot of tax dollars into the city.”
A new era in code enforcement
But Black’s seemingly iron-clad logic has proven no match for the determination of Burlington’s code enforcement division – a subunit of the city’s planning department that’s responsible for enforcing everything from business signage and zoning violations to unkempt lawns in front of area homes.
For much of its existence, the city’s code enforcement staff had addressed code violations primarily in response to complaints from the general public. All that changed in the spring of 2019, when the code enforcement division introduced a new program of proactive code enforcement, which has seen its officers identify violations on their own while continuing to field complaints from the public.
“We give everybody with a code violation 30 days to comply. We have to have evidence to show that what we’ve sent fines for has actually happened…and they’re not fined before being given a chance to comply.”– Chris Marland, Burlington’s chief code enforcement officer
Chris Marland, the city’s chief code enforcement officer, insists that property owners continue to have the same right to due process under the division’s new enforcement regime that they had with the previous, complaint-based approach.
“We give everybody with a code violation 30 days to comply,” he recalled in an interview last week. “We have to have evidence to show that what we’ve sent fines for has actually happened…and they’re not fined before being given a chance to comply.”
Marland insists that J&R Liquidations has been treated like any other business under the division’s new approach to code enforcement. Black disagrees and proffers several instances when he believes Reynolds went beyond the pale of professionalism in his pursuit of the store’s alleged code violations.
Black said that, in one case, he set up a card table within the parking lot and offered a single, $1 bottle of shampoo for sale in what he deemed to be an innocent prank. Black added that the next thing he knew he had been slapped with a $100 fine for this alleged violation.
“Everyone knew this was a joke,” he recalled, “and I still got the $100 fine.”
Another time, Black said that he accidently posted the wrong date in an online promo for the parking lot sale. Rather than wait for a genuine violation to arise on the actual date of sale, Black said that the code enforcement division preemptively dispatched a fire inspector on the posted date, only to have him arrive at a largely desolate parking lot.
Marland, for his part, is quick to dispute Black’s account of the card table incident – which he insists was never the trigger for any of the fines that J&R Liquidations received. More generally, the city’s chief code enforcement officer contends that his division’s officers have always given Black and his brother ample opportunity to address any apparent code violation.
“They were given a chance to comply and they haven’t complied,” Marland said. “Every time that the officer has shown me a photo in regard to a fine, the parking lot has been pretty full of pallets and boxes. It has never been just one card table.”
A trend in the making?
Black, meanwhile, isn’t the only business owner at the former outlet centers who has rung up some unpleasant transactions with Reynolds since he took over his code enforcement beat. In fact, the officer’s allegedly heavy-handed tactics have become a regular preoccupation for Corey Alston, who manages the former outlet centers on behalf of its owner Dave Tsui.
“It’s like he [city inspector] was sent over here to hurt the businesses and not to help them.” – corey, alston, Manager for former BMOCBMOC,” Alston explained in an interview.
Alston insists that Reynolds has been a tinpot tyrant compared to the other code enforcement officers who’ve previously patrolled the former outlet centers.
“It’s like he was sent over here to hurt the businesses and not to help them,” Alston explained in an interview.
Among the tenants who have bristled under this officer’s regulatory regime are Octavius Davis, the owner of the Mamba Event Center; and Lisa Hartzog, the proprietor of an axe throwing venue called “What’s All the Rage?”
Although Hartzog would seem to have more of an axe to grind, given her venue’s specialization, her main gripe with the code enforcement officer has been concerned the relatively minor issue of signage regulations.
Davis, on the other hand, has found himself in a bona fide existential crisis due to the code enforcement division’s attentions – a calamity which hinges on something as utterly mundane as the varying definitions that the state and the city use for “event center.”
Davis had set up his business earlier this year within a retail space that was formerly home to another event center. It therefore seemed like a natural home for his own establishment – a private bar with additional space for events such as musical performances.
Davis had no trouble obtaining a license to sell alcohol from North Carolina’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, which includes “private bars and clubs” in its official definition of an event center. Burlington’s planning department also gave Davis a nod to establish his business in June of this year, although it did so under a different definition of event center that explicitly excludes private bars and clubs.
This distinction might’ve been nothing more than an academic issue of semantics – if not for another provision in Burlington’s rule book that prohibits a bar or club from setting up shop within 200 feet of a church. It just so happens that the owner of the former outlet centers rented a storefront less than 200 feet away to a small church about a year or so before the “Mamba” made its debut at the strip center.
Alston insists that the center’s owner could’ve intervened to address the apparent incompatibility between his two tenants. But to his dismay, the center’s manager said that Reynolds contacted the ABC Commission before he was even aware of the apparent mismatch.
The upshot was that on September 7, Davis received a letter from the ABC Commission which confirmed that his business was properly classified as an “event center” under its own definition, but nevertheless threatened to suspend his probationary license to serve alcohol in light of the conflicting classification in Burlington’s municipal code book. The commission’s letter went on to note the apparent city code violation regarding the Mamba’s proximity to a church and it gave Davis one month to resolve the issue or have his license officially pulled.
At roughly the same time that the commission sent off its missive, Davis also received a letter from the city of Burlington informing him of the same city code violation which had prompted the state regulatory agency to act.
In Alston’s opinion, the timing of these two letters, as well as Reynolds’ contact with the ABC Commission, smacks of outright skullduggery on the part of the city’s code enforcement officer.
“Chris Reynolds didn’t come to us so we could work something out,” the center’s manager said. “He decided to go to the ABC commission and complained to them instead.”
Marland asserts that Reynolds did nothing improper in his handling of the Mamba Event Center’s alleged violation.
“He got his ABC permit as an event center, and he’s running it as a bar,” he recalled. “That’s two different line items in our schedule of uses.
“Chris called the ABC board to ask them what would happen if this situation arose,” the city’s chief code enforcement officer added, “and the ABC board took the action it did.
“Code enforcement officers have different strategies when it comes to face-to-face interactions,” Marland went on to defend his subordinate’s tack. “But his work is usually correct and by the book.”
In the meantime, the code enforcement officer’s “by-the-book” approach has raised an encyclopedia’s worth of concerns for Black’s brother Joseph. The other co-owner of J&R Liquidations insists that Reynolds has done more harm than good to BMOC’s retailers with his apparently assertive approach to code violations.
“We’ve brought severe life back to this place again,” Joseph Black said. “We’ve called him several times and asked what rule we have violated, and he sends us the same screen shot each time, but we aren’t violating any of the rules that he’s saying we’ve violated.”
The city’s presumptive crusade against J&R’s parking lot sales has proven just as mystifying to Joseph Black’s sibling and business partner.
“I’m not trying to spite them,” John Black said of the city’s code enforcement division.
“[Reynolds] is picking on us, and I have no idea why”