County officials explain injunction placed on X4B nightclub

The locks have been changed at the old Mama Stella’s Italian Restaurant in Bryans Road, located at 7075 Indian Head Highway, where the X4B nightclub was expected to have a grand opening on Nov. 23. It is now closed indefinitely following a court injunction awarded to the county last week.

‘Twas a few days before its grand opening when all through Bryans Road, local residents were sitting on pins and needles, deeply anticipating the drama at X4B that would unfold.

The locks have been changed at 7075 Indian Head Highway, following a court injunction that was granted to the county on Friday.

It’s been a little over a week since county commissioners and state delegation officials were bombarded with complaints, from loopholes to crime and human trafficking, during a community meeting held Nov. 19 in Bryans Road. Nearly 300 residents and opponents alike vehemently expressed their disapproval of the X4B adult nightclub, questioning how the county could allow this type of business in a residential area where economic growth has deteriorated.

During that meeting, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) admitted that he and his colleagues initially found out about X4B “through social media, phone calls and emails from the community.” Despite raised eyebrows and fingers being pointed, Collins received several rounds of applause from constituents after explaining that X4B would “not be permitted to operate” due to a revocation letter issued on Nov. 15 from the county’s zoning officer, Jessica S.B. Andritz.

The Maryland Independent met with Collins and Andritz separately this week to learn more details about the legalities involved such as the Core Employment/Residential or CER Zone, overall significance of the injunction that prohibited X4B’s grand opening on Saturday and what the next steps entail in terms of addressing ongoing concerns.

“The key to the injunction was to ensure that the language was sufficient to provide the sheriff’s office the policing authority that made them feel comfortable,” Collins told the Independent on Monday. “The judge’s order granted us the authority to lock the doors which provided a sense of security for everyone. Law enforcement wasn’t put in a position to where they would be attempting to arrest people and that type of thing. It definitely worked out.”

X4B, having been involved with legal issues pertaining to location and zoning restrictions, was previously located in the Temple Hills area of Prince George’s County before county authorities ordered it to shut down back in 2016. FOX 5 News discovered at the time that a licensing loophole had allowed X4B and 11 other “businesses in Prince George’s to hold banquet hall and catering licenses,” despite operating as “underground strip clubs” in residential and commercial areas.

“Their purpose was not forthright in what they presented to the county,” said Collins, referring to X4B’s attempt at relocating to Bryans Road. “That’s when it became clear that the actual, potential use of this establishment was in violation of our overall zoning ordinance.”

X4B’s application noted that the existing Bryans Road property, Mama Stella’s Ristorante Italiano whose website pointed out that it had been closed for remodeling and renovations since Oct. 1, would be used as a “restaurant in future.”

Charles County attorney E. Wesley Adams III, a former homicide division chief who worked for the Prince George’s County Office of the State’s Attorney, said X4B had originally “left their [permit] application” as an establishment that would operate as a restaurant, bar and lounge, “just like Mama Stella’s” did before it closed down almost two months ago.

However, X4B submitted a change of occupancy inspection card, which Andritz called the county’s “green card,” on Nov. 8.

The sudden change, coupled with X4B’s promo flyer circulating on social media which featured a partially nude woman, is “what really drew attention to everything that was going on,” Collins said.

That ultimately created more confusion for Andritz who had made a startling discovery after receiving a voicemail on Nov. 14 from Lisa Laschalt, director of environmental health at the county’s health department.

“I discovered that there had been some significant confusion and/or misstatements made by the permit applicants,” Andritz told the Independent on Wednesday. “This process allowed for someone to come in and do a quick flip of the commercial space and open its doors.”

Andritz, who said she did not get Laschalt’s voicemail until after close of business on that Thursday, connected with her the next morning. Laschalt informed her that “someone that wanted to do an assembly use at 7075 Indian Head Highway in Bryans Road had also inquired as to whether or not they could sell and/or have patrons smoke hookah.” In addition, Laschalt told Andritz that the applicants told her that X4B was “intending to use the existing building” as a restaurant where Italian food would be served, “similar to what Mama Stella’s” had done.

After an on-site visit from health department inspectors and other county government officials, the X4B applicants learned that upgrades were needed in the kitchen so the restaurant could be brought up to code. However, cost estimates “resulted in the applicants saying they were not going to do a restaurant/bar” at the time because they didn’t have the money for it, according to Andritz.

“Based on those statements from the applicants to the health department inspectors,” Andritz said, “it was determined that the health department did not need to be part of the review and permitting process since there wasn’t going to be any food being produced, sold or consumed on-site.”

Andritz immediately “became concerned” as the permit that was originally issued on Nov. 12, by building code official Don Litten Jr., “had indicated that there really wasn’t going to be a change in use as a pre-existing restaurant/bar.” The only thing different this time around, she said, was the live entertainment aspect, which Andritz said the county’s zoning ordinance “doesn’t discuss.”

“I think we need to tweak this process a little bit,” said Andritz, who is also the acting deputy director of the Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management. “We’ll be looking into it and see what makes sense. But we still want to create and have a way for businesses to relocate to Charles County.”

As soon as Andritz found out that X4B’s use as a restaurant/bar “was off the table,” she referred to the zoning ordinance and also re-evaluated the application. That’s when Andritz determined that the change in occupancy to an “assembly for parties, receptions, fundraisers” violated section No. 4.01.400 of the ordinance, which addresses “Social, fraternal clubs and lodges, union halls, meeting halls and similar uses” as the site is located in the Core Employment/Residential Zone where “this assembly type” is prohibited in agricultural zones, unless a “special exception” is granted by the appeals board, according to Andritz’s letter dated Nov. 15.

Andritz then advised Litten about her determination and X4B’s permit was revoked accordingly.

“Are there things we could put in place to strengthen regulatory approaches? [The answer is] yes,” said Jennifer Harris, chief of media services for the county government. “But also, if you look at the process from start to finish, government actually worked. It did what it was supposed to do in terms of checks and balances. We caught things that didn’t line up with what should be done there [in Bryans Road], and intervened to stop it.”

The Washington Post reported back in 2016 that Prince George’s council members eventually passed new legislation restricting such establishments to operating in “industrial, warehouse areas.” That action was taken after residents had voiced their frustrations about the clubs being “unsightly and created unwelcome traffic, extra parked cars, noise and trash,” according to the Post.According to FOX 5’s report from 2016, Prince George’s County had “won a lawsuit allowing the government to force adult entertainment venues to move to industrial areas known as Zone 2.” It was appealed, however, by two of the nightclubs under scrutiny which claimed “exotic dancing and stripping” are rights protected as “freedom of expression” by the First Amendment.

“In a situation like this, there’s really only a handful of options that the county had,” said Collins. “It’s not constitutional for us to just say, ‘No, you can’t operate here.’”

“We, as a Charles County government, can impose what are called reasonable time, place and manner restrictions,” Adams said at the Nov. 19 meeting in Bryans Road. “One of them is the Core Employment/Residential Zone.”“You can impose reasonable restrictions based on time, place and manner. But zoning is most critical,” Collins said. “What we can’t do is come up with a separate process because that could be construed as being discriminatory, and would also impose liability on behalf of the county.”

X4B is shutdown indefinitely as a result of the injunction granted Friday, which allowed the sheriff’s office to enforce the revoked permit.

The Independent reached out to David Martinez of Jenkins Law Firm LLC, the personal attorney representing X4B’s owner, but a request for comment was not returned as of Wednesday morning. George B. Vaughan, another attorney from G.V. Law Group PLLC, whom the Independent was told represented X4B, made it clear via telephone that he is not currently offering his services to the nightclub.

Collins, who is legally refrained from giving an answer as to whether or not X4B will be allowed to conduct business in the county, said he wants the county to be reassured that the commissioners’ board will “do everything” in its power to “ensure businesses of this type” do not “operate near churches, schools and residential areas.”

“We certainly believe there is a certain community standard that should be honored,” said Collins. “The entire public will be a part of whatever we present. I would be open to listening to feedback from the community about what that would entail.”

In terms of the Watershed Conservation District, Collins said that legislation will be part of the commissioners’ agenda moving forward as decisions have yet to be made regarding whether or not it will be revoked. There was a request, however, from Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) who suggested that county staff conduct a comprehensive analysis of the “potential impact of economic development within the western side of the county,” according to Collins.Twitter: @JClink_MdINDY