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SC appeals court reverses ruling in dispute over rooftop bar at Charleston hotel

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The Dewberry has been battling with city over the hotel's rooftop bar since around 2017. File/Staff

The S.C. Court of Appeals has reversed a 2017 ruling that determined that one of downtown Charleston's most luxurious hotels could operate a rooftop bar. 

The latest decision, issued Oct. 20, sided with the city of Charleston, which tried to block the venue atop The Dewberry near Marion Square. The court found that the city's zoning board had the authority to dictate whether the hotel could operate the bar.

In a statement, Kristie Rasheed, general manager of The Dewberry, said the hotel has been "operating responsibly" since its opening in 2016.

"We believe both Citrus Club and Rivers Room to be a great assets to the City of Charleston," Rasheed said.

The hotel is "saddened and exhausted by these abhorrent legal machinations," she said in the statement.

In her comments, Rasheed did not say whether or not The Dewberry will appeal the Oct. 20 decision to the S.C. Supreme Court.

City spokesman Jack O'Toole said in a statement that the city appreciated "the court's carefully considered ruling in this case." 

"Preserving the character of our residential neighborhoods is a critical component of our citizens' quality of life, and this decision clearly reaffirms the BZA's role in that process," he said, referring to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals. 

An order that has allowed The Dewberry to operate the bar, called the Citrus Club, and its Rivers Room event venue during the legal battle is still in effect.

The dispute started in 2016, when the upscale hotel began promoting a swanky new cocktail spot on its top floor as it prepared to open in a former mid-century government office building on Meeting Street, just north of Calhoun Street.

But the city said the owners didn’t have permission to open the Citrus Club. It wasn’t included in the plans that zoning officials approved in 2011 that showed a pool and a glass-enclosed area for a spa and fitness center under a so-called special exception use. 

When the hotel was completed, the eighth level was instead outfitted for an event space and a bar with an outdoor terrace. 

The hotel asked the Board of Zoning Appeals in April 2017 for permission to modify its plans to allow the bar use. The panel rejected the request, in part citing concerns shared by residents in the nearby Mazyck-Wraggborough neighborhood.

The Dewberry then went to court to challenge the denial and prevailed.

In a December 2017 ruling, Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson wrote that the zoning board “committed an error of law in denying the request ... based on speculative noise and harm from the outside terrace that is already the subject of three noise-containment conditions" that were included in the original special exception that was approved in 2011.

The city, in turn, filed its own appeal.

All the while, the bar remained closed, but in mid-2018 the hotel asked the judge to allow the venue to open. The Dewberry estimated at the time that it had lost as much as $5 million in revenue because of Charleston’s refusal to let the Citrus Club operate.

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The Citrus Club bar at The Dewberry has been open since 2018. The venue has sparked a years-long legal battle with the city. Most recently, the S.C. Court of Appeals issued a ruling that sided with the city and said The Dewberry needed permission from Charleston's zoning board to operate the bar. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A few months later, Nicholson allowed the hotel to open the bar. The Citrus Club made its debut that fall, serving hotel guests and the public. The judge's order still stands, as the dispute winds it way through the state legal system. 

According to Wednesday's decision, the lower court was wrong in determining the hotel didn't need approval for the bar. 

Charleston zoning ordinances “clearly authorized” the Board of Zoning Appeals to consider all plans for the hotel, including accessory uses — in this case, a bar with an open-air terrace — and they also give the zoning board the power to place conditions on those uses, the Appeals Court said.

“Under the circuit court's interpretation of the ordinances, a hotel, such as (The) Dewberry, could submit plans for a special exception that did not include any objectionable accessory uses and then, after receiving BZA approval, include in the construction a use the BZA would not have approved,” the ruling stated.

The S.C. Court of Appeals issued a ruling Oct. 20, 2021 that reversed a decision by the circuit court which had said the city of Charleston couldn't bar The Dewberry hotel from operating a bar on its eighth level.

The Appeals Court also said it disagreed with the circuit court’s assertion that the city's 2011 approval could be taken as “tacit permission” for the hotel to add different accessory uses to that top floor.

It further disagreed with the lower court’s determination that the city’s refusal to allow the bar to open was “arbitrary and capricious.”

“We find the neighborhood residents expressed valid concerns,” the ruling said.

The Appeals Court also found The Dewberry “knew or should have known" it was required to formally amend its 2011 approval when it decided to swap out the pool and spa for the Citrus Club. 

In her statement, general manager Rasheed said the "overriding concern" expressed by the community at the BZA hearing in 2017 was the potential noise that could come from the bar. 

"In the more than three years of operating Citrus Club and the Rivers Room, there has not been a single noise complaint made to the hotel or the city that was reported to us, demonstrating the hotel has run the Citrus Club and Rivers Room without blemish," Rasheed said. "In fact, Mazyck-Wraggborough residents are some of our most ardent guests."

The Citrus Club is open Wednesday through Sunday. Customers younger than 21 aren’t allowed, and men are asked to wear collared shirts. “Citrus-inspired cocktails” and “fresh lite bites,” like oysters, citrus salad and veggie tacos are offered, according to the bar's menu. 

The bar was a co-winner in the 2020 James Beard Awards for "Outstanding Design of Alternative Eating & Drinking Places."

The Dewberry’s website describes the eighth floor terrace where Citrus Club patrons can drink and dine as “the highest rooftop in Charleston.”

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Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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