Police called over MH tobacco shop demolition

The Morgan Hill Cigar Company as seen after it was allegedly hit

The owners of the Morgan Hill Cigar Company didn’t expect to spend New Years Day making statements and submitting photographs to the police in order to stop what they alleged was a plunder of their business and destruction of city property. But that’s what they did.

The 14 owners and former proprietor Wyatt Miller agreed late last year that it was time for Miller to remove several flat-bed truckloads of furniture and fixtures that he owns – including the bar, cash register counter, lounge chairs and couches in the front of the store. The shop has leased the items from Miller ever since he sold the business in 2009, according to Morgan Hill Cigar Company manager Jeff Burrus.

Miller and some of his associates showed up Sunday, ostensibly to remove the items that both parties already agreed were his, Burrus said. After the items were loaded for transport, unexpectedly to the current occupants of the shop, Miller and his crew then took sledge hammers and electric tools to the walls that surrounded the walk-in humidor he built inside the shop in 1996.

Burrus and the other owners considered this an unauthorized and unannounced act of destruction – not only of a private business but also of city-owned property.

The removal of the humidor’s walls as well as some lighting fixtures, a wine rack that was attached to an interior wall toward the rear of the space and other items “are not eligible for removal,” Burrus said. “I consider (these items) city property.”

Burrus tried to convince Miller to stop the demolition verbally, but unable to do so he called Morgan Hill police and city officials.

The police said the dispute is a civil matter that should be resolved among the feuding parties or in the courts. Miller and his crew were ordered to finish removing the property that belonged to him, clean up the demolition mess and leave the property until the dispute can be resolved civilly.

The city’s redevelopment agency purchased the building that houses the tobacco retailer and wine bar in 2008, and transferred the property to the newly created downtown economic development corporation last year. That property also contains the vacant Granada Theater and the Downtown Mall.

Miller, who also owns a tobacco shop in Monterey, entered a lease agreement with the city to remain in the spot until the city’s redevelopment plans came to fruition. However, he was on the verge of closing up in 2009, but Burrus and the other 13 longtime customers of the popular shop pitched in and purchased the business from him. The shop continues to lease the space from the city.

Since the purchase, the current owners leased Miller’s furniture and fixtures he used to run the shop. But a series of disagreements over the items’ value ensued, and the shop’s current board of directors offered to buy the items from Miller but they were unable to sit down for negotiations, Burrus said.

That led to Sunday’s removal of Miller’s property, which followed a 60-day notice he provided the shop’s owners last year, Burrus explained.

While Burrus acknowledged that Miller built the humidor and wine racks himself, he thinks by removing “the fabric” of a cigar shop and wine bar he was trying to cripple the business out of bitterness. He said Miller was being “vindictive” by suddenly removing the humidor and wine racks.

“I think he was jealous of the success we have had” since purchasing the business, Burrus said.

Furthermore, Burrus thinks the wall that Miller removed became part of the structure when he added it in 1996. That means he willfully destroyed city property, and should be cited for a criminal offense, Burrus said.

City staff were unavailable to comment at press time.

Miller declined to discuss the incident in detail until the potentially three-way dispute is resolved.

“I was there to take my property,” Miller said Monday. “I would never do anything that was illegal. They gave me today and yesterday to do it, and I had to work today. I wasn’t going to wait for the dispute to get settled.”

On Monday, the partners and contractors were busy inside the gutted cigar shop, replacing the deconstructed humidor wall – which measures about 20-feet by 15-feet in size – as well as the bar, lights, and other important fixtures. Burrus expects the shop will reopen Thursday.

Some of the Cigar Company’s members are unaware that their property stored in the walk-in humidor might have suffered damage from the wall removal. Members were given access to individual, locked drawers that were attached to the wall that Miller removed, in which they could store their cigars in a controlled environment where the product could be preserved.

When Miller removed the drawers he might have damaged some of their contents, Burrus said. About 50 of the 85 drawers in the humidor were occupied, and each one contained from $250 to $1,000 worth of cigars.

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