New law murky on adult videos Mainstream stores fear ordinance could make them violators

January 08, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

In the two years that Adrian Mihaescu has run Glenelg Video in the western part of Howard County, he never had to defend his decision to stock a small room in the back with dozens of sexually-explicit videos.

Now, however, a single complaint could change that.

A law passed last week to restrict adult entertainment businesses in the county fails to specify where the line is drawn between a mainstream video store that sells or rents some sexually-explicit videos and a full-fledged adult video store.

If someone files a complaint, an inspector could decide if Mihaescu's store, which mainly deals in mainstream films, is an adult business.

The vagueness of the ordinance concerns Mihaescu and other owners of independent video stores that rent adult films.

"That's not right," says Mihaescu, who knows most of his customers by their first names. "There has to be some way to know what's an adult store and what's a regular store."

But the head of the county Department of Planning and Zoning says video store owners have nothing to worry about -- as long as a vast majority of their business involves nonadult material.

"We're not trying to get into every store in the county and decide if the X-rated videos they have are in violation of the law or not," says Joseph W. Rutter Jr., planning and zoning director. "This is not a censorship issue."

A high-ranking official with the Encino, Calif.-based Video Software Dealers Association, which represents some 4,000 independent video store owners, expressed reservations about the wording of Howard County's law.

"It's unusual not to find quantitative material in such ordinances," said Bo Andersen, senior vice president and general counsel of the association. "Ordinances should provide businesses an opportunity to conform to ordinances without leaving the standard in the hands of public officials."

The bill, which became law last week, restricts adult businesses to districts zoned for commercial use. The legislation also requires that the stores be at least 500 feet from homes, churches, day care centers, schools, parks and public libraries, and at least 2,500 feet from another adult store.

The problem lies in the wording of the legislation. According to the law, an adult video store is "where a significant or substantial portion of the stock in trade is characterized by an emphasis on matters depicting, describing, or relating to sexual activities."

The county agency must receive a written complaint about an allegedly offending business before it can launch an investigation, Rutter says. Once an investigation has been completed, Rutter and other officials will review the complaint and render a decision, which can be overturned by the Board of Appeals, Rutter says.

Any adult business found in violation of the law has one year to move or close.

Surrounding counties have more specific laws.

Anne Arundel's ordinance defines an adult video store as one that devotes at least 20 percent of available floor space to renting or selling the films. Prince George's says a store with adult videos making up more than 10 percent of the stock on the premises is an adult business.

Rutter says officials deliberately refrained from settling on a percentage because there were too many variables.

"If you put a specific number in, it leads to game-playing," he says. "Do you measure it in square footage, the volume of tapes, the volume of rentals? There's just too much to decide."

Rutter concedes that the interpretation rendered by zoning officials is "subjective," but he points out that they will consider other criteria, such as increased criminal activity in the area around a store or reports of children entering the adult business.

"If it's just a small percentage of the store's display area and just rental, not a peep booth, then we're probably not going to find that it's a substantial portion," Rutter says. "If we get a complaint, but the police say they've never had a problem there, it's going to be real tough to enforce."

But Donna Maloney, who owns Roundabout Video in Lisbon and has fewer than 200 adult films out of 4,000 videos, says she would prefer a specific figure.

"It seems like there should be a concrete statistic," Maloney says. "There has to be a dividing line."

Most area independent video stores rent adult films from a small room in the rear of the store. Only West Coast Video, part of a national chain, on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, has a larger room -- nearly double the size of other rooms.

Industry analysts say adult videos represent a sizable portion of business for independent owners. Between 1992 and 1997, annual revenue generated by the sale and rental of adult videos doubled from $2.1 billion to $4.2 billion, according to Adult Video News, a monthly trade magazine.

That demand can be very important to a small video business, says Bruce Apar, editor of the New York-based Video Business magazine.

"I think [renting adult videos] is one more bullet in your gun to compete with the Blockbuster down the street," Apar says. "A store has to find a niche that a chain store can't match."

Mihaescu acknowledges that the adult videos in his store -- which generate 20 percent of his business -- help him earn a small yet comfortable profit.

"It's a good revenue drawer," he says. "And I'm not going into homes and telling people what to do. If they don't like it, they can go somewhere else."

For Barbara Sieg, a resident who pushed for restrictions on the adult stores, the vagueness of the legislation is an indication that the county adopted a weak law.

"When you do not have clear wording in the law, it becomes subject to interpretation, and when it becomes subject to interpretation, you open yourself to lawsuits," says Sieg, one of several organizers of the Howard County Alliance to Maintain Community Values. "This goes back to the argument that the county didn't do its homework."

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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