COLUMBIA — The First Amendment is blocking Bill Rotts’ alleyway.
Rotts is petitioning the Special Business District Board of Directors to relocate a newspaper corral placed in front of his law firm at 1001 E. Walnut St. Calling the corral “a cancer growing on my front lawn,” Rotts said the publication racks block access to his alley and interfere with a fire hydrant.
Earlier in the summer, Special Business District Director Carrie Gartner told Rotts in a letter that solving the problem isn’t as simple as moving the racks.
“The City of Columbia’s policy is that all newspaper racks, whether traditional news or commercial publications, are protected by the First Amendment,” Gartner wrote. “Although we requested it, the city was unwilling to revise this policy due to numerous and successful lawsuits that have been filed by newspaper companies against cities.”
The explanation was reiterated during a Special Business District board meeting last week, but Rotts isn’t buying the argument.
“The city should have the absolute right to control” the placement of these racks. “These publications shouldn’t get to conduct themselves like hooligans, putting their racks wherever they want.”
Tracy Grant, the Columbia Daily Tribune’s circulation sales manager, determines the placement of the Tribune’s newspaper racks. The paper has abided by a friendly agreement with the Special Business District to keep its racks in the corrals.
Space in the corrals “was on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Grant said. “All the racks were supposed to be in the corrals, but it doesn’t seem like they’re policing it. It’s starting to look like a mess again.”
In addition to the mess, Rotts believes the racks interfere with a fire hydrant in front of his building. One of the hydrant’s plugs stands only about 2 feet from the encroaching racks. After a call from Missourian reporters, Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Sapp agreed with Rotts, in an e-mail, that the 2.5-inch plug on the hydrant’s west side “would not be of any use to us” during a fire. As a result, put in a work order to have the hydrant rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise.
Sapp said the fix would eliminate the newspaper racks as an obstacle. Rotts disagrees.
“That’s hilarious,” he said. “Everywhere else in the world, you get in trouble if you get too close to a fire hydrant. Just rotating the hydrant is not the solution.”
Rotts said the location of the racks also interferes with his plan to landscape the outside of his building with wrought iron fences, a sculpture, and resurfaced sidewalks.
“I could care less at this point (about the landscaping),” Rotts said. “Right now it would create a narrow sidewalk. Improving that sidewalk was part of my landscape.”
Rotts has offered to pay to repair the sidewalk if the corral is moved. He said he also would consider paying to move the corral, depending on the price tag. Gartner said that would cost about $2,000.
One of the biggest problems with removing the corral is finding a new place to put it. The racks in question were formerly in front of Ernie’s Cafe and Steakhouse, 1005 E. Walnut St., but became an obstacle when Ernie’s added outdoor seating.
Rotts offered to place the corral against the wall of his building, but noted it would not be visible from Ernie’s. That consideration is important to the publications’ circulation people.
“You want (the racks) near restaurants or stores,” Grant said. “If you moved it to another location, then customers won’t see it and won’t purchase it.”
Rotts argued his problem is “somewhat unique in the city” because the corral is on the sidewalk and not against a wall.
Campus Bar and Grill, 304 S. Ninth St., also has a sidewalk corral outside its business.
“I wouldn’t call it the most convenient thing,” but “it is convenient for our customers,” manager and owner Mike Geiss said. “We’d rather not have it outside our business, but we make do.”
Corrals offer publishers the opportunity to chain their racks to each other in an organized location without causing damage to light poles or trees. They were installed in 2005 as part of the Special Business District’s beautification plan. The district and the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department determined the location by evaluating pedestrian access to sidewalks and upholding standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The city held public hearings before making the final decision on where to place the racks, and ultimately the sites were approved by the district and the City Council. Although Rotts bought the building before the corral was moved to his sidewalk, he said he was unaware of the hearings.
“They did it without any notice to me whatsoever,” Rotts said.
The issue has yet to be resolved. But the Special Business District board agreed to create a committee to investigate Rotts’ complaint. Gartner said the process will be slow but promised the committee would keep Rotts up-to-date.
“I am very optimistic that the board will be able to solve my problem,” Rotts said.