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Tarpon Springs orders Web business to close

The attorney for ucanwatch.com says the company's business is on the Internet, not in the city. An appeal is planned.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001


The attorney for ucanwatch.com says the company's business is on the Internet, not in the city. An appeal is planned.

TARPON SPRINGS -- After a discussion Thursday that ranged from rumors of orgies to a Clinton-esque exchange about the definition of sex, Tarpon Springs' Code Enforcement Board told ucanwatch.com to shut down its local operation or face $800 a day in fines.

During a three-hour debate, the opposing sides offered starkly different views of whether a business that exists in cyberspace also can be located in, say, a waterfront home in Tarpon Springs.

Ultimately, members of the city's Code Enforcement Board decided that the nude voyeur Web site does operate, at least in part, out of a Tarpon Springs home and is therefore in violation of several city ordinances.

City administrators told the board that live video feeds of naked women are shot in the Kreamer Bayou home, then transmitted online to subscribers. People associated with the company earn money from the transaction, so the house clearly is a place of business, said Walter Fufidio, the city's director of planning and zoning.

Ucanwatch.com attorney Steve Bartlett noted that the company's computer server is in Tampa, and the information is sent to a world of subscribers through the Internet. He said the business is located on the Internet, not in Tarpon Springs.

"Who knows where cyberspace is located?" Bartlett said.

The city's Code Enforcement Board unanimously sided with Fufidio's argument. Its members voted 7-0 against the company and Stephen Shutt, who owns the home.

The board said the company has until May 15 to come into compliance with city codes. If the company continues to operate out of the home, fines will be assessed at $200 a day for each of four violations, for a total of $800 a day.

The company violates ordinances requiring all businesses to obtain occupational licenses and requiring adult-use businesses to obtain an adult-use permit, the board ruled. It also violates ordinances that only allow adult businesses in highway business districts and that do not allow such businesses in areas zoned residential/single family, according to the board.

Ucanwatch.com manager and registered agent Michael Schriver, whose company leased the house in May, said the company will appeal in circuit court. In the meantime, he said, he will not do anything differently.

"We stay put," he said.

Board members said they made their decision based on arguments about whether a business operates out of the house.

"I'm not evaluating the morality of what that product is," board Chairman Michael Mattia said. "In my estimation there is a product . . . at this location, for which the owners receive remuneration."

Still, much of the discussion focused on more sordid issues, including a police officer's description of a house filled with naked women and questions from board members about whether sex acts take place in the house.

On Jan. 15, an anonymous caller told the Police Department that a woman was screaming at the house. According to a dispatcher's notes, there was a "possible orgy occurring."

Officer Mark Parsons went to the house to make sure everybody was okay, he said. In a memo and in testimony, he said he saw several naked women, including one who was sitting in front of a camera and two who scurried when they saw Parsons and other officers.

"We must have startled them," he said.

The women told Parsons they were live on the Internet, and they told him they worked part-time for $500 a week, Parsons said. Schriver said nobody at the house is paid, but that they live there rent-free.

Parsons ran the women's names and found that one had a warrant for violation of probation for marijuana possession.

Fufidio pointed out that the home is zoned for residential/single family. Was that consistent with what Parsons saw at the house, Fufidio asked?

"There was no evidence of family life there," Parsons said.

Bartlett and Schriver said police had no right to go inside the house and that a man at the house tried to keep them out. Parsons said the man let them in and all the women cooperated when he asked for identification.

To support the company's position that the business does not operate out of Tarpon Springs, Bartlett said some of the photographs the site links to are actually other Web sites not related to the Tarpon Springs house.

Board members were given photos downloaded from the site, in which naked women posed and engaged in sexual activity. To clarify where the photos came from, board member Nancy Dively asked Schriver if the women at the house perform sex acts.

Schriver said no, but then elaborated: "That depends on what you consider sex acts," he said.

Even though much of the discussion focused on sexual matters, Bartlett told board members not to base their decisions on the content of the Web site. Regulating this business, he said, would set a precedent of government intrusion into people's homes.

"We don't want to become a country that is ruled by the moral police," he said.

Fufidio said that he, too, wanted board members to decide the case based only on the regulatory issues.

"This was a simple zoning case," he said.

- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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