Fight on adult stores stalls Council says delay is temporary, moves to limit massage shops

October 28, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

The push to restrict Howard County massage parlors moved forward at last night's County Council meeting, but the fight against adult book and video stores stalled amid disagreements over several key details.

Council members vowed the delay would be temporary as they agreed to take at least one more month to craft a bill that would sharply limit the location of adult stores yet still survive a possible court challenge.

Regional politics have complicated the debate as residents along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40 have battled to prevent a bill they fear could make their communities adult entertainment capitals of Howard County.

"I'm willing to have any compromise that works. The only one I can't live with is [bill number] 65," said Council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader, referring to a version that could concentrate such businesses along U.S. 1. "That's putting them all in one part of the county."

The opening of the Pack Shack on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City prompted the debate over adult businesses in Howard. There is only one other, a video and book shop on U.S. 1 in Elkridge.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, proposed the first version of the bill, which would have allowed adult businesses in commercial and industrial areas, mostly along the U.S. 1 corridor, from Laurel to Elkridge.

It also would have required that adult shops be at least 400 feet from residential areas -- a provision that would have forced the Pack Shack to move or close.

But neighbors along U.S. 1 complained. Schrader, a North Laurel Republican, proposed a second version that would have spread adult businesses more evenly across the county but allowed them closer to homes -- within 200 feet.

At a public hearing last week, residents urged the council to drive the adult businesses away but criticized both versions of the bill. Several residents urged council members to give themselves more time to consider the various options.

Following that advice, the council last night agreed to delay action on the bill so it can shape the legislation to allow the county to limit adult businesses as sharply as the courts will allow.

"It's more important to do the best we can in a situation in which we can't do [as much as] any of us want," said Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat.

New restrictions on massage parlors -- the other morality initiative in what Howard officials jokingly call "holy month" -- faced little trouble at last night's work session.

At least four of the five council members say they are ready to support the massage parlor bill at the scheduled vote next week. Only Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said he was still undecided.

The bill would prohibit cross-gender massages for money, unless the person giving the massage is a certified therapist or other medical professional.

The measure also would close a loophole in a 1994 law that was designed to regulate massage parlors but exempted those that had a single certified massage therapist on staff.

Police say the changes, if passed next week, would allow them to more effectively crack down on the growing number of massage parlors in Howard, which number at least 13.

Such businesses, which police say often peddle sex acts for profit, have flourished in Howard because of its central location and its lax regulations compared with those in neighboring counties.

Lawyers for the massage parlors have said the new restrictions would be unconstitutional and unfair to legitimate businesses that have tried to play by the county's rules.

Gray said the new rules may be too sweeping. "What you end up doing is taking a broad brush and painting everybody," he said.

But the rest of the council has lost its patience with massage parlors.

"It is a blight in our neighborhoods, particularly a blight in these business communities," said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican. "I think it's time to move forward on this."

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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