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Adult club law may be costly

Legal and financial hurdles await, and clubs that aren't already classified as adult entertainment could slip through the cracks.

Luke Lirot likes to point to a passage in a staff analysis of Dade County's fallen adult entertainment ordinance: "The enactment of the proposed ordinance pertaining to Adult Entertainment will not result in any additional cost to Dade County."

The First Amendment attorney then points to a judge's order that Dade County, now Miami-Dade, pay more than $260,000 to the attorneys of an adult bookstore that sued the county. Lirot's share was $17,000.

It's a scene he's predicting will play out again in Pasco County as officials here fine-tune their proposed ordinance.

"This is simply an attempt to censor these businesses," Lirot said Friday from his downtown Tampa law office.

The purpose of Pasco's proposed adult entertainment ordinance, both sides agree, is to clean up that section of U.S. 19 in Hudson that nearby residents say looks like a red-light district.

Already the ordinance has been heard by the county's Land Development Review Committee. And already serious questions have been raised about whether the proposal actually can clean up the area and, if so, at what cost.

County legal staffers insist the county's ordinance is patterned after other local laws that have passed judicial muster. In a nutshell, the county's ordinance would require businesses that qualify as adult entertainment to be licensed and located solely in industrial parks. Those adult entertainment businesses operating legally but outside of industrial parks would have one year to move.

"I believe the county is on very firm ground, and all the case law tells me that," said assistant county attorney R.C. Burnette, who has drafted the county's ordinance.

But several members of the Land Development Review Commission who attended a workshop on the ordinance last week questioned whether the ordinance would be able to touch the handful of adult-oriented clubs and video stores that dot the area around U.S. 19 north of State Road 52.

Why? Because none of those businesses are currently recognized by the county as adult establishments and therefore could fall through the cracks when the new ordinance is adopted, according to county zoning administrator Fred Lowndes.

"If they're not adult entertainment establishments under the current ordinance, then they're not adult under the proposed ordinance," Lowndes said.

The county's current ordinance requires adult clubs featuring nude or semi-nude dancers to get a special exception permit and operate in general commercial areas. None of the businesses that have upset neighbors have that permit, and county officials have been unable to force them to get one, Lowndes said.

"When I've been out there on occasion, when I get a complaint, they (female dancers) were clothed," he explained at Wednesday's workshop.

Club owners say that's the way they run their businesses all the time. Those who turned out for the Wednesday evening workshop assured county officials of two things: that their businesses were not really adult entertainment shops and that they would lose a lot of money if they were forced to relocate anyway.

"We are a legitimate business," said Jim Dato, an owner of Calendar Girls.

"We provide jobs and services."

Although Burnette doesn't agree that the clubs aren't adult businesses _ "You don't get 42 arrests for lewd and lascivious if you're not adult entertainment," Burnette said _ he is researching what can be done to make the current businesses tone down their advertising in case they do beat the proposed ordinance.

"I'm looking up some First Amendment cases," Burnette said.

But what happens if the clubs are recognized as adult businesses and given a year to relocate? Lirot and his co-counsel, Scott Boardman, predict the county will end up paying damages.

"They're not concerned with the secondary effects. They're concerned with the content of the expression," Lirot said.

Both sides agree that the county can't regulate the dancing, just its secondary effects, such as increased crime, corruption of minors who see the XXX signs and declining property values. That's why local governments can't ban nude clubs or bookstores, but can restrict where they go.

But can the county force an existing club to change its theme or move within a year?

Burnette points to case law that suggests it can. Lirot points to case law that suggests it can't. Both agree that the forced relocation is a matter to be decided on a case-by-case basis by a judge who considers a host of issues, such as how much industrial space is available, what kind of investment the owners made in their business and what the county's actual interest is in regulating the industry.

The land use review committee doesn't advise the County Commission on constitutional matters; its purpose is to decide whether proposals mesh with the county's land use plan.

But several members, including land use lawyer Steve Booth, admitted that they were concerned about the idea of giving a business a one-year deadline to move without offering any kind of compensation.

Other members suggested the proposed ordinance could do more harm than good: It might do little to clean up the appearance of the current businesses, but could make it easier for someone _ like Tampa nude-dance club king and Lirot client Joe Redner _ to open an all-nude review in an industrial area without the approval of the county or planning commissions. Special exception permits, which are currently required of adult entertainment businesses, must be approved by the Planning Commission and can be reversed by the County Commission.

Ultimately, commissioners will decide how much legal risk they want to assume when adopting the ordinance. Burnette noted that the commission has not yet heard from either the Sheriff's Office on the amount of crime associated with the clubs along U.S. 19, nor from the Property Appraiser's Office on whether nearby land values have declined since the businesses opened.

Commissioners could decide to grandfather existing businesses in or make the regulations stricter, Burnette said.

But commissioners certainly have heard from residents near the adult club cluster in Hudson who have passed around petitions that make it clear they do not want the businesses so close to their homes.

One of them, Hudson resident Eric West, reiterated the point when the proposed ordinance was unveiled last week. He wants those businesses moved, West told commissioners.

"And I feel this will do it."

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