FULTON COUNTY, Ga. - John Cornetta, owner of The Love Shack, has won his battle with the City of Johns Creek over whether he would have been entitled to erect signs and banners on his building.
As a result of his vindication in the lawsuit, Cornetta can now sue the city for $1.7 million in lost business expenses.
"This has been going on for a long time, and today's order is the final order; there will be no appeal from the city," Cornetta told AVN. "The bottom cellar [for damages] is $1.7 million, and it can only go up from there. We put the city on notice a year and a half ago. We put it in writing that we have an issue here, and we'd like to solve it. They didn't respond."
Attorney Cary Wiggins represented Cornetta in the case. Judge Ural D. Glanville's ruling on the signage is a major victory following a three-year ordeal of frustration for the adult retailer, who voluntarily closed his Johns Creek store when legal bills and operating expenses grew too high.
"They almost defeated me," Cornetta said. "I came really close to individually filing for bankruptcy; it almost cost me everything, financially and emotionally."
Glanville ruled on March 16 that Cornetta was improperly denied sign and banner permits. Sam Bishop, the Senior Planner for the City of Johns Creek Community Development Authority, claimed he refused to grant Cornetta permission for the Love Shack signage because "the purported business owner ha[d] been denied an Occupational Tax Certificate for the location."
Trouble is, there's nothing in the Johns Creek Code of Ordinances that permits a denial based on a lack of an Occupational Tax Certificate, and in responding to Cornetta's lawsuit, the city didn't cite anything in the ordinance that supported its denial.
"The Court's function is not only to determine if the lower tribunal's [the Business Zoning Authority] interpretation of the ordinance is reasonable, its obligation is to construe the ordinances as a matter of law," Judge Glanville wrote in his opinion.
With no law allowing the city to deny permits based on the lack of an Occupational Tax Certificate, the city "must review and decide sign-permit applications based on the standards set forth within the four corners of the Sign Ordinance," according to Judge Glanville.
Since "the Constitution requires that [the county] establish neutral criteria to insure that the licensing decision is not based on the content or viewpoint of the speech being considered," the court found Johns Creek had overstepped its legal bounds in issuing the denial.
Judge Glanville noted that in arguing the case before him, the city had attempted to supply other bases for the permit denial, including that The Love Shack was not in compliance with the requirements of the zoning district, that the business was "illegal" and that the owner of the lot on which the store stood had not given express permission for the location of a sign on the property, but that the city had not produced any evidence at the zoning hearing to support those allegations - and that to allow the city to present new evidence at the appeals stage would create "due process problems."
"A business with no sign is a sign of no business," Cornetta said. "The city of Johns Creek went about this the wrong way, and every dollar they spent was for naught. They spent $700,000 in legal fees - $238,000 went to [anti-porn attorney] Scott Bergthold, the biggest Bible-thumper around. At this point, the insurance company for the city is in talks with us; they're going to come up with a number."