Setback for Sunset Overlook

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The Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court ruled last Tuesday against Sunset Overlook, upholding an earlier ruling by Judge Julia Gomric in Monroe County Circuit Court. 

Gomric gave a partial summary judgement Aug. 14 against the embattled Columbia business, located at 11604 Bluff Road, issuing an order that permanently enjoined it from selling and/or serving food or drink outside, consuming food or drink outside, providing ancillary entertainment outdoors or providing ancillary entertainment indoors without a special use permit. 

In the appellate court’s ruling, which was written by Justice Thomas Welch and concurred with by justices David Overstreet and Milton Wharton, Welch said the order was affirmed because the residents suing the business “did not fail to exhaust administrative remedies… there was no genuine issue of material facts and the (residents) were entitled to judgement as a matter of law.”

This legal case began in November 2018, when a group of residents who live just up the bluff from Sunset Overlook filed a chancery injunction for various reasons, including that the business was the source of “unrelenting disturbances” like loud music and patrons. 

Paul Galeski, Timothy DeWald, Kris Brower, Cindy Huseman and Bruce Freeland filed that suit, but DeWald is no longer a party on it. 

After her Aug. 14 order and one order later that month clarifying it, Gomric denied Sunset Overlook’s request to reconsider the motion because a memo written by Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey that supported the establishment’s case did not meet the necessary criteria to be considered. 

On Sept. 20, Gomric temporarily suspended her order, which is now back in effect, while Sunset Overlook appealed her ruling. 

In its ruling, the appellate court addressed the three issues of if the residents exhausted all administrative remedies before seeking a partial summary judgement, if there is an issue of facts and if the residents were entitled to the judgment. 

In the first matter, the court ruled the residents did not need to exhaust their administrative remedies, as Sunset Overlook argued, because the courts have authority over zoning and their remedies would be different than administrative ones. 

The residents are also seeking the administrative remedy of having Sunset Overlook’s liquor license revoked for alleged violations. 

The appellate court also ruled there was no issue of facts because Sunset Overlook admits to serving food and drink outside, hosting events like a St. Louis Blues watch party and having live music performed outside. 

That is important because partial summary judgements, which are a drastic measure, should only be granted “where the right to it is clear and free from doubt,” the court wrote. 

The final issue took up much of the court’s 16-page opinion. 

Sunset Overlook argued the residents were not entitled to the judgement because its business and liquor licenses exempt it from Columbia’s zoning code restrictions and it does not violate the language of the code by serving food and drink outdoors because the actual transactions are conducted inside the business. 

While the court acknowledged the memo from Dunakey interpreted the code in a favorable way for Sunset Overlook, and that Columbia could amend its code, it can only rule based on the “plain language” of the law. 

“This court would not employ the defendant’s interpretation as that would lead to an absurd result wherein a restaurant zoned for C-1 purposes could flout all limitations imposed by the code in relation to full service of food and drink to customers outside the premises so long as a credit card was swiped or change was made inside the walls of the premises,” the court wrote. 

By that same logic, the court ruled Sunset Overlook provided ancillary entertainment outdoors without a special use permit. 

It also found the argument about the business being exempt because of its licenses “irrelevant” because any establishment must abide by Columbia’s zoning code. 

Given all that, the court affirmed Gomric’s order, saying it was “appropriate.” 

“Over the past year and a half, in violation of the plain terms of the City of Columbia’s zoning ordinances, my clients have been forced to live with a nuisance bar as their back door neighbor, destroying their ability to quietly enjoy their property,” said the residents’ attorney, Natalie Lorenz. “Our clients were forced to sue under state law to have city zoning ordinances enforced.” 

Daniel Lytle, the attorney for Sunset Overlook, declined to comment. 

The case is not yet finished, as Sunset Overlook could file a petition for a re-hearing in the appellate court, file a petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court and file more legal action in Monroe County court.  

The issue of Sunset Overlook’s liquor license will also be heard at a local liquor control commission hearing this Friday at 10 a.m. at Columbia City Hall. 

For our October article on this legal battle, click here.

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