February 06, 2007
City wins strip club lawsuit

It was a long time in coming, but the city has finally won the lawsuit against it that will allow it to finally implement the 1997 sexually oriented businesses (SOB) laws.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas has ruled the city can double, from 750 to 1,500 feet, the distance required between the clubs and "sensitive" areas including schools and churches.

That new requirement could imperil dozens of topless clubs and adult book stores.

Atlas wrote that the ordinance, passed in 1997, didn't violate the businesses' First Amendment rights because alternate sites are available where they could relocate and comply with the regulations.


The decision is the latest twist in a years-long legal battle about changes in 1997 to the city's sexually oriented businesses ordinance, and a victory for police and some neighborhood activists, who have sought tougher regulations for years.

"They may be lawful businesses, but they create a danger to our kids," said Houston police Capt. Steve Jett, who heads the department's Vice Division. "It's just a big success for Houston to be able to regulate where these sexually oriented businesses operate."

The ruling could affect well-known establishments including The Men's Club at 3303 Sage, and Treasures at 5647 Westheimer. Managers at those facilities couldn't be reached Monday, but city officials said they wouldn't be eligible for licenses under the ordinance Atlas upheld.

It restricts sexually oriented businesses from operating within 1,500 feet of schools, parks, churches and day-care facilities.

Such businesses must be at least 1,000 feet from each other and outside of residential areas.

First things first: I've been critical of the city for spending the large amount of money that it has defending itself against this suit. I have always thought that it would have been more prudent to punt on the aggressive distance requirement, which likely would have led to a quick settlement on the other points, and use that money on more pressing matters. Given that they ultimately won the suit, I can't really claim their expenditures were unjustified. Winning will do that for you.

But I still think that part of the law was overly restrictive. With all due respect to Captain Jett, how exactly do the Men's Club and Treasures threaten kids at their present locations? It's not like kids - or anyone else, for that matter - are walking past these clubs on a regular basis. If it's the mere fact of their existence that imperils kids, then how does pushing them out to unincorporated areas inside Harris County, where the city's laws won't affect them, improve matters?

I suppose he's really referring to the video stores, newsstands, and massage parlors, which by their smaller nature can be in the same places as other commercial establishments and thus puts them in contact with folks who are not out specifically looking for that sort of thing. I'd argue that a lot of those locations are not particularly kid-friendly with or without the SOBs present, but perhaps that's beside the point. Maybe it wouldn't have been practical for the city to attempt to distinguish between types of SOBs when drafting this ordinance. That's not how I recall the debate over these laws going way back then, but perhaps I'm not remembering it clearly after all this time. In any event, barring an unlikely reversal on appeal, the question appears to be moot. We'll see what happens from here.

On the bright side, maybe this will be the last we hear of five-month-long undercover investigations into allegations of excessively dirty dancing at the local clubs. One can only hope.

UPDATE: 'stina is pissed about this. She also found this blast from the past.

"What they are proposing now would shut down 90 percent of the legitimate clubs, and allow the outlaw businesses to flourish," said Bob Furey, president of the Colorado Bar and Grill. "This is not what the public wants."

Councilwoman Helen Huey, chairwoman of the committee, said consideration of the proposed new regulations will include input from business owners.

"There is no effort on anyone's part to rush to a decision on this; we have worked too long and too hard on this to succumb to that," Huey said.

I don't know what input they ultimately sought out, but they certainly didn't heed that part of it if they did get it. Alas.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 06, 2007 to Local politics | TrackBack

Here I am playing lawyer again. The court case apparently throws out 70 years of precedent. Historically, existing land uses have been grandfathered against more restrictive zoning provisions. Non-conforming uses have always been allowed to continue to exist, but not to expand. As popular a target as strip clubs are, the decision ought to be viewed as a frightening expansion of governmental authority. If they can make strip clubs move by ordinance, other land uses and businesses - and people - are equally vulnerable.

Posted by: Dennis on February 6, 2007 9:27 AM