A day after the city of Lakewood suspended the business license of the Star Lite Swap Meet, a Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled it could open this weekend.
Steven Burnham, attorney for Star Lite owner Hank Bardon, argued the business was improperly shut down by the city.
Judge Frank Cuthbertson agreed, granting Burnham’s request for a restraining order and saying the city acted without allowing Bardon due process.
“I’m gonna grant the restraining order for a limited time,” Cuthbertson said. “There needs to be notice, but there also needs to be an opportunity to be heard.”
The city pulled the business license Thursday afternoon. The restraining order allows the swap meet to stay open, ahead of an administrative hearing Monday at Lakewood City Hall.
The final straw for the city came April 3, when police were called to the property in the 8300 block of South Tacoma Way to investigate reports of a missing 6-year-old girl.
They arrived at 1:15 p.m. to find cars backed up on 84th Street in both directions and a parking lot full of stopped cars.
Police faced additional difficulty trying to get onto the swap meet grounds. Crowds made it difficult to move through the one entrance and exit.
“The conditions inside the swap meet are sufficiently crowded, shown by the difficulty police officers experienced while attempting to locate the reporting party responsible for the initial lost child call,” the city stated in its letter to Bardon. “(T)he Star Lite appears to be fertile ground for another serious injury, fatality or child abduction.”
By the time police got inside, the girl had been found. While there, officers were contacted about two additional, unrelated missing children. They too were quickly found.
This isn’t something they do for sport. They’re paying the rent and feeding their kids. The city is going to shut all those people down.
Steve Burnham, attorney for Star Lite Swap Meet
That’s because Star Lite staff used a loudspeaker to announce they were missing, owner Bardon said. The announcement helped reunite the children with their families, he said.
Children get separated from parents at crowded events, Bardon said, adding that shouldn’t prompt the revocation of his business license.
“It was kind of a blown out of proportion thing,” he said. “It’s unreasonable for the city to go out and shut down the business.”
The city, in its letter to Star Lite, said immediate action was warranted based on evidence of continuing problems at the meet. Lakewood cited prior incidents, including the 2011 death of a vendor who was hit by a car on the property, as contributing factors in the city’s decision.
Star Lite was sued over the 2011 death. The case was settled in October and ultimately dismissed two months later.
Bardon said he believes the city has targeted his business for years and is looking for ways to force it to close.
He points to a change in the city’s temporary business license requirements as a recent example of city interference. The new rules that went into effect last summer limit the amount of time the vendors can sell to 180 days, at which point they have to take a three-month break. Previously they could sell year-round.
The changes apply to all temporary business license recipients, not just Star Lite vendors.
The city regularly inspects the site for violations. In years past, visits have led to the seizure of suspected stolen items and the eviction of vendors who were selling without business licenses.
The most recent inspection April 2 didn’t find unlicensed vendors, according to Dave Bugher, assistant city manager for development. But the city continues to have issues with garbage on site and knock-off apparel items being sold, Bugher said.
The inability for people to easily come and go from the property is a problem, City Manager John Caulfield said.
The city had to make a statement on this and had to take action. Our goal here is to get him to fix these issues.
John Caulfield, Lakewood City Manager
“The city had to make a statement on this and had to take action,” he said. “Our goal here is to get him to fix these issues. Would we allow any other businesses in the city to operate like this? No.”
The Star Lite opened in 1948 as the Star-Lite Drive-In. The property was later converted to a swap meet.
In 2001, before Bardon owned it, the Internal Revenue Service seized the property during an investigation into a Lakewood crime family.
Bardon bought the land for $7.2 million at auction in 2004. He has since operated the swap meet on the 25-acre site that is one of the largest properties along the commercial corridor.
Bardon estimates more than 800 vendors fill the indoor/outdoor stalls. They sell six days a week, although the weekends are the busiest time, Bardon said.
Many vendors are low-income, senior citizens, veterans or Hispanic, he said.
“This isn’t something they do for sport. They’re paying the rent and feeding their kids,” said attorney Burnham. “The city is going to shut all those people down.”