Fight over French Quarter T-shirt shops lands in court

The fight over T-shirt shops in the French Quarter has landed in court.

Members of the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustments, which had been set to consider the fate of 13 different shops in the Quarter after a month-long delay in the matter, arrived at City Hall on Monday to find a Civil District Court judge had issued a temporary restraining order barring any action.

Justin Schmidt, an attorney representing most of the shops, filed for a restraining order earlier this month. Schmidt wants a judge to force City Hall to turn over more of the relevant property records, which he hopes will show that his clients were operating their businesses well before a 2010 ordinance went into force prohibiting any new T-shirt, novelty or souvenir shops in the Quarter.

The City Attorney’s Office is refusing to give up the documents, calling the request “overly burdensome” and expensive. Schmidt said the city has told him the records in question are contained in some 90 different boxes, all indexed by year rather than property address.

A hearing on whether the city will ultimately have to comply with the records request is scheduled for May 19 in front of Judge Paula Brown.

In the meantime, the zoning board voted unanimously to defer a vote on the shops for another month while the records issue is being hashed out in court.

Michael Martin, an attorney for the two French Quarter neighborhood groups that have been pushing the city to clamp down on the proliferation of novelty stores, asked that the board at least go ahead and decide on the handful of shops not directly covered by the court order.

But the board decided to put off voting on any of them, since all of the shops are looking for the same records from the city.

Like the recent debate over sound levels on Bourbon Street, the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates and another group, French Quarter Citizens, are leading the push for enforcement of the T-shirt shop ordinance, which went into effect in January 2011. They argue that T-shirt shops have been multiplying out of control, threatening to diminish the historic character of the neighborhood without adding much value in return.

Some of the shop owners argue they’ve been unfairly targeted, either because they were operating long before the moratorium went into effect or because T-shirts and other souvenirs represent only a tiny fraction of their business.

Martin has acknowledged that some of the shops were already open when the ban went into effect, but he argues they should not be grandfathered in because they did not properly identify themselves as T-shirt shops when they first registered with the city, using designations like “general merchandise” instead.