SHEFFIELD — Joseph Mitchum moved to Sheffield with plans to open a cigar lounge, but a controversial ordinance that prohibits smoking inside businesses crushed those plans, leaving him with a building and architectural plans he can no longer use.
Earlier this month, Mitchum filed a claim against the city in which he's seeking $50,000 in compensatory damages.
According to the claim, Mitchum planned to open a cigar lounge at 111 E. Second St., which is at the intersection of East Second Street and Nashville Avenue downtown.
Mitchum said he moved to Sheffield from Atlanta, Georgia, last year, but started conversations about opening a cigar bar with city officials in June or July of 2017.
"We saw how the area was growing," Mitchum said. "It would be a good place to do business. There was a lot taking place, and we got excited about what was happening in the city. My wife grew up here."
The claim states before Mitchum closed on the building "meetings were held with city council members."
Sheffield attorney Bennett Pugh said he did not identify the council members in question in the claim because he intends to include them in a civil lawsuit if the claim is not satisfied.
Mitchum said he purchased the building based on assurances there wouldn't be any impediments to opening a cigar lounge.
According to the claim, he purchased the building and incurred expenses for architectural plans to remodel it, property taxes and attorney's fees. He claims the reassurances made by council members were "fraudulent" or suppressed material facts that ultimately prohibited him from opening the business.
He said a local architect spent about three months drawing up plans for the business. Pugh said his client has also been paying property taxes on a vacant building.
While there are two cigar lounges in Florence, Pugh said there isn't one in Sheffield, Muscle Shoals or Tuscumbia.
Mitchum said the proposed business would be a block off Montgomery Avenue and in proximity to several downtown businesses.
Mayor Ian Sanford said he could not discuss the claim because of the potential for subsequent litigation. Efforts Wednesday to reach council members Penny Freeman, Steve Nix, Ronnie Wicks and Malea Scales were unsuccessful.
Councilman Steve Stanley said he spoke to Mitchum several months ago in his capacity as a member of the Sheffield Redevelopment Authority. He said those conversations occurred before the smoking ordinance was approved, but he made no assurances concerning the business being able to operate as planned.
Stanley was hesitant to discuss the claim due to the potential for litigation, but he said he gave Mitchum information about rezoning requirements.
In his opinion, Stanley said, the ordinance does not prohibit a cigar lounge from opening.
"It prohibits smoking indoors and 20 feet from an entrance," Stanley said. "The purpose of the ordinance is to protect workers and patrons who may not recognize the danger from the effects of second-hand smoke."
City Clerk Clayton Kelly said the claim was sent to a local representative of the Alabama Municipal Insurance Corporation. Kelly said AMIC will assign the claim to an attorney, who will contact Pugh to discuss the issue.
"There is sure to be some discussion between the parties," Kelly said.
Pugh said he expects to address the City Council about the claim during its Monday meeting. If the council does not rescind the ordinance, or approve an alternative ordinance Sanford has proposed, he intends to file a civil lawsuit in Colbert County Circuit Court.
"We don't oppose a business-friendly smoking ordinance," Pugh said. "We oppose the current ordinance. The current ordinance is too restrictive."