The city of Madison will continue its prosecution of the Majestic Theatre for failing to sign an agreement and pay fees for encroaching on the city's right-of-way, despite a request that it hold off until the Madison Landmarks Commission can consider the matter.
"We don't think the requirement that we protect the public right-of-way is different for a building that has landmark status than one that doesn't," says City Attorney Michael May.
As Isthmus was the first to report ("City Goes After Majestic," 2/20/09), the city wants the Majestic to pay more than $1,000 annually in fees, plus fines of $25 to $500 a day, for the encroachments caused by its signature marquee, decorative cornices and an underground vault.
Scott Leslie and Matt Gerding, the co-owners of the Majestic nightclub, which leases the building, are willing to pay for the vault but balk at the fee for the marquee and cornices, since the building's status as a registered landmark requires their preservation.
Stuart Levitan, the Landmarks Commission's designated historian, has asked that body to discuss an "ordinance amendment to waive the fee for encroachment into public space by...protected landmarks" at its March 23 meeting. Ald. Mike Verveer also wants to introduce an ordinance amendment to this effect.
Meantime, Levitan wants the City Attorney's Office to hold off prosecuting the Majestic.
But May says his office will "make the prosecution determination independent" of any policy review and not likely "suspend prosecution for past violations." He adds that the Majestic probably wants to keep its marquee.
May says state and city law mandates protection of public right-of-way via these agreements: "The right-of-way sort of belongs to the public; to give it up permanently to a private business is not something we're allowed to do."
Yet no past Majestic owners have paid these fees; the city first sought payments from the building's former owners in June 2007, who sold it that month. Leslie and Gerding say they were unaware of this expense. Grouses Leslie, "This is the thanks we get for rehabbing the theater."
Given that the Majestic is more than 200 days in violation, May says the potential fines run "into tens of thousands of dollars." But the city has offered to settle for $250 plus court costs, provided it gets a signed agreement for future payments. "We want compliance more than we want punishment."
Leslie says the settlement amount is acceptable, but he isn't thrilled with the agreement, which requires the signatories to waive the right to "contest in any manner the validity" of the encroachment laws and apparently absolves the city of liability even for "negligent acts."
May says the city plans to meet with the Majestic on April 20 "to attempt to settle the matter."