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The quest: to hem in strip clubs

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling raises hopes among county officials trying to shape an ordinance on adult clubs.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 1, 2002


When it comes to sequels, the battle between Pasco County and strip clubs could put Rocky to shame.

The two sides will soon be at it again as Pasco prepares to start hearings regarding its revamped ordinance related to adult entertainment businesses. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a similar case in Los Angeles could provide a guide for local officials.

The key question comes down to the link between skin and sin. Is there one?

The answer might determine whether local governments can use their zoning powers to force sexually oriented businesses away from homes.

Because club owners cloak themselves in the First Amendment, county commissions and city councils must rely on zoning powers to regulate adult businesses by trying to prove they increase the crime rate and sink property values.

Pasco County tried that approach several times in 1999, when it banished adult businesses to industrial areas. The county relied on studies done by governments in the Tampa Bay area, across Florida and around the nation to tie sexually oriented clubs to crime and lower property values.

But local business owners said there was no such link and challenged the county to prove their establishments caused problems.

In December, a federal judge in Tampa struck down Pasco's adult ordinances as unconstitutional. He ruled that the county would put the companies out of business by forcing them to locate in industrial areas that prohibit alcohol and imposing a host of other rules.

The county has decided to throw in the towel on that fight and rewrite the zoning ordinance.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on a Los Angeles case.

The court ruled 5-4 that city officials could bar two X-rated businesses from operating at the same location because a concentration of such stores could lead to crime and blight.

The decision carried different meanings for those facing off in the Pasco case.

Luke Lirot, a Tampa attorney for the adult entertainment clubs, claims victory.

He says the ruling relates directly to Pasco because it makes room for local statistics, which might favor club owners, to shoot down broader studies.

"These cases say if you're going to rely on this stuff (studies) as a government entity, you can do so, but you can't do so at the expense of local evidence," Lirot said.

"Until the places become a problem, my position is that (Pasco commissioners) are not ever going to be able to adopt a constitutional ordinance," Lirot said.

Not true, says Rick Fee, a Tampa attorney and one of two consultants the county hired to rewrite its zoning ordinance.

He pointed out that the decision ruled in favor of Los Angeles' zoning power.

"Quite honestly, (the Supreme Court decision) is not going to have much bearing at all," Fee said. "You don't have a majority of justices agreeing on anything other than ... it should go back (to trial)."

* * *

Fee says the zoning ordinance he is rewriting will be based on the same studies the county used before, which focus mainly on devalued property and higher crime associated with adult entertainment.

Because the Supreme Court justices did not clarify the law in the Los Angeles case, Fee is not worried about it affecting Pasco.

"There's something in there for everyone," Fee said.

The ruling states that Los Angeles officials could bar two X-rated businesses from operating at one store.

The reason, the majority of justices said, is that a concentration of adult entertainment businesses can bring crime and blight to a neighborhood.

For years, Los Angeles officials tried to shut down businesses that sold X-rated videos and also charged a fee for customers to watch the videos on the premises.

The city had argued that the dual-service businesses violated the zoning ordinance that required a 1,000-foot separation between X-rated shops.

The ruling in City of Los Angeles vs. Alameda Books and Highland Books overturned a district judge's decision that said city officials had no evidence that the two businesses in one store brought more crime.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the Supreme Court's majority, said many studies, including one in Hollywood in 1977, showed that street crime is highest in areas where adult businesses were concentrated.

Four justices sided with her. However, one of the four agreed only to send the case back to the district court for a trial. There the attorneys challenging the law can try to show that no evidence exists linking the video store to crimes.

* * *

Local businesses say Pasco County needs to prove there is a link between them and increased crime before county commissioners pass more laws.

Statistics gathered by the St. Petersburg Times from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office show that many of the area's adult clubs generate fewer police calls than regular bars.

The Times asked for police calls and arrests during the two months before and two months after Tampa's federal court shot down the county's ordinances in December to see whether problems increased after the county suspended the rules, including a ban on lap dancing.

They didn't.

Many of the regular bars needed law enforcement assistance far more often than exotic dance bars and other adult entertainment clubs.

Tropics Bar & Grill had 26 calls, including 13 for verbal and noise disturbances, along with several calls for fights and criminal mischief.

Bourbon Street weighed in with 22 calls for service. Bourbon Street had noise and verbal disturbances, along with a few batteries and drunken drivers.

By comparison, adult club Lollipops had 13 calls for service, Flash Dancers, nine, and Calendar Girls, eight -- all with similar types of calls as the other bars.

But Fee said information on calls for police service are misleading.

"There is an inherent flaw in that analysis," Fee said. "A police call is when someone reports a crime or possible crime."

Prostitution could be happening in an adult entertainment business, he said. If no one reports the crime, a report will not exist. But that doesn't mean a crime hasn't been committed.

Many studies base the crime analysis not on police calls, but on testimony from former employees from the operations as well as police officers, he said.

The Los Angeles case was based on a police department study showing crime rates in neighborhoods around adult entertainment businesses.

Critics have tried to tie drugs and prostitution to adult entertainment clubs.

Sheriff's Lt. Robert Sullivan, Pasco's vice and narcotics supervisor, said he doesn't think there is any more drug use or violent scuffles at adult clubs than bars. But he suspects prostitution rates are higher, based on surveillance.

However, he lacks evidence to prove that. And past cases crumbled when juries refused to convict the women.

Drug investigations take a higher priority, Sullivan said, particularly since Sheriff Bob White shook up Sullivan's unit to put more deputies on the street.

"We are trying to pick our battles," Sullivan said. "My number one priority right now with the amount of manpower I have is to fight drugs. ...Going after prostitutes is not my priority."

Jim Dato, owner of Calendar Girls on U.S. 19 in Hudson, said his business is vigilant about warding off crime.

"We are very, very careful about how we run our business," Dato said. "We don't have bouncers or muscleheads that beat up on people. We have people that use their heads to talk to people. If they have too much to drink, we call them a cab."

* * *

The federal judge in Tampa found in December that taken together, Pasco's two adult ordinances were too oppressive. The zoning ordinance, which regulates location, tried to push clubs into industrial zones where alcohol can't be served. The second rule, called a regulating ordinance, banned contact between employees and patrons, among other things.

The county scrapped the regulating ordinance. The new zoning ordinance soon will be introduced to the County Commission during a workshop, which will be scheduled Monday. Two public hearings will follow the workshop.

Since the county's laws have been off the books because of the December ruling, more adult clubs have opened: There's Sin-Na-Bar exotic dance club on U.S. 19 in Holiday; ACS Inc. lingerie modeling shop and massage parlor in Wesley Chapel; and Risque Lingerie on State Road 52 in Port Richey, according to Fred Lowndes, the county's former zoning director, now a consultant working with Fee on the zoning ordinance.

Rather than force businesses into industrial zones as the previous ordinance tried, this one likely will allow adult clubs and bookstores in certain commercial areas that are specific distances from residential areas, Lowndes said. The County Commission must decide whether to exempt current clubs, which are in commercial zones, he said.

That's not good enough, says Brenda Enfinger of Hudson, one of the original residents to prod the county into passing the ordinances a few years ago. That's when Suncoast Lingerie Modeling and its "Nasty Heathers" opened at the entrance to her neighborhood on U.S. 19 at Sea Ranch Drive. The business later moved.

Enfinger still wants to see the adult businesses placed far away from neighborhoods.

"They need to be in industrial areas, where the general public won't be affected," she said. When topless bars opened near her home in North Carolina about 20 years ago, she said, police showed up in the area with drug-sniffing dogs. Motorcycle gangs and prostitutes became regular visitors.

She fears the same could happen near her Hudson retirement home.

"I come to a little bitty town to retire and for this to happen is devastating to me. ... If you don't believe (more crime will come), you just wait five or six years and see what happens to this end of the county."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report, which also used information from wire services .

-- Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is amrhein@sptimes.com.

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