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Squabble threatens bill to restrict sex shops

Legislation to establish a buffer between schools and adult-oriented businesses stalls as Tampa and Hillsborough fight over one store.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


TAMPA -- A squabble between Tampa and Hillsborough County officials could kill proposed legislation to prohibit adult businesses from locating within 2,500 feet of a school in Florida.

Two local lawmakers filed the bills in response to a controversy over permission Tampa granted last year for a adult book and video store at 330 E Fowler Ave. near the city-county border.

But the Senate bill will die when the Legislature adjourns next week unless county officials agree to exemptions the city wants for the Fowler shop and locations a federal judge approved for future adult businesses in Tampa, said Sen. James Hargrett, the bill's sponsor. "At this point the bill is on hold, and that (dispute) may in fact kill it," Hargrett, D-Tampa, said Wednesday. "Today, I'm not encouraged."

The Fowler Avenue site is 150 feet from a neighborhood and 1,500 feet from Miles Elementary School. Because neighbors and the school are on the county side of the line, city officials said they couldn't consider them when reviewing the application.

County commissioners and the Hillsborough County School Board sued to block the sex shop. But Hillsborough Circuit Judge James Whittemore agreed the city was within its rights and threw out the suit in December. Another suit is pending.

Hargrett and Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, sponsored bills to establish the buffer of nearly half a mile between schools and adult businesses that begin operating after July 1. After Tampa officials balked, Hargrett amended his bill to include the exemptions.

City officials say the county is trying to do an end run around Whittemore's ruling.

The Fowler sex shop hasn't obtained a certificate of occupancy and would be illegal under the law if owners couldn't open by the July 1 deadline, said City Attorney James Palermo. That could expose the city to a lawsuit, he said.

City officials also worry the bill could undermine federal lawsuits filed in 1996 against exotic bars and nude-dancing clubs that violate Tampa's zoning laws.

The city had to show it wasn't using zoning to outlaw adult entertainment and came up with a list of legal locations in industrial and heavy commercial areas. A federal judge approved 64 of them.

None of those sites is within 2,500 feet of a school, Palermo said. But the School Board could build new schools that would eliminate some sites, endangering the ongoing suits, he said. "We don't want to go through this litigation one more time," Palermo said.

Deputy Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean wrote Hargrett on April 19, opposing the exemption and other changes the city requested.

The School Board, which originally approached Hargrett to sponsor the bill, didn't intend to reopen the Fowler Avenue controversy or interfere with the city's lawsuit, said Connie Milito, the board's lobbyist.

"The School Board's intention with this bill was to ensure schools in Hillsborough County as well as throughout the state don't have to deal with the situation that happened at Miles Elementary," she said.

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