Speak of the Devil In suburbs across America, townsfolk act to put severe limits on First Amendment-protected sex shops before they arrive. But some worry that the move will backfire.

October 06, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PERKASIE, PA. HTC — PERKASIE, Pa. -- Biblically speaking, the Rev. Richard Fletcher's argument seems solid: God would never set aside a place for sin. So a proposal to create an adult-entertainment district here in Perkasie is, on its face, reprehensible.

But at a town meeting recently, a local official berated the pastor for making that case. "I'm taking offense at this," said Robert Wasson of the Planning Commission, bristling at any implication that the plan he endorses is designed to attract sex-oriented businesses to town. "I'm a Christian just like you are, and I don't want trash in the borough."

Blanketing a hillside in eastern Pennsylvania, this quiet town of 8,500 is known for its abundance of parks. This summer, it became known for its debate over sex.

In one of the more baffling trends to hit small-town America in recent years, tiny communities everywhere are squabbling over how best to regulate strip clubs and X-rated theaters. As it happens, most have no such businesses operating and don't expect any soon. They are simply passing laws pre-emptively, just in case any such businesses should some day decide to infiltrate their communities.

The towns are responding to a 12-year-old Supreme Court ruling that allowed communities to restrict such businesses to specific areas, but barred imposing a total ban on adult entertainment as a violation of free speech rights.

For years, the ruling was of no consequence to small towns like Perkasie. But over the past decade, sex-oriented businesses, pushed out of cities by saturated markets and restrictive laws, have begun seeping into the suburbs. Alarmed that the industry could soon reach them, many far-flung communities have swung into action, aiming to pass laws so confining that no sex-oriented businesses will bother setting up shop in their towns.

"The small towns and suburbs saw sex-oriented businesses as a big-city problem, but when the first one or two opened in places that 10 or 15 years ago were farm fields, people woke up," says Alan Weinstein, a Cleveland State University law professor who has followed the trend. "Sex and religion inflame people's passions."

Perkasie is an unlikely backdrop for a conflict over adult entertainment.

Nestled in the foothills of the Poconos, it's a secluded community with no main road. American flags flap outside many homes. Childhood friends run against each other for mayor. The last big debate occurred last year, over whether allowing a McDonald's restaurant to open would encourage loitering and make the town smell like hamburgers.

The hubbub over the sex industry began in June, when Perkasie officials proposed a new zoning code. Because the town could not impose an all-out ban on sex-oriented businesses, residents were told, city leaders were seeking the next-best thing: a law limiting where such businesses could operate. Under the proposal, expected to pass this fall, adult entertainment would be restricted to a tract of land between a shopping center and a senior living complex.

Many residents were bewildered. With no sex-oriented businesses in town, and no hint of any on the horizon, some feared that the new law could actually serve as a welcome mat, letting adult clubs and theaters know that a specific spot awaited them.

So town officials find themselves in an awkward position. They don't want adult entertainment here any more than their constituents do, and resent the implication that they are somehow inviting the problem. But their frustration with the limits of the Supreme Court ruling has compelled them, ironically, to try to set aside an area expressly for such businesses.

"This is something our town definitely does not want, but because of a decision made completely out of our influence, we have to sit here and can't do what we know is right for the town," said Marty Gahman, the mild-mannered president of Perkasie's borough council. "You talk about individual rights, and I understand that. But what about our rights? Why don't we have the right to say we don't want it?"

Getting prepared

Big-city suburbs were the first small communities to pass adult-entertainment regulations; such laws have been established more frequently in recent years. On the outskirts of Baltimore, New York City, Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere, many towns now have laws regulating sex-oriented businesses.

Howard County has an ordinance that restricts adult businesses to areas zoned for general business purposes, adding that they must be at least 500 feet from residential areas, churches, day-care centers, libraries, parks and schools. In August, an adult video store in Elkridge unsuccessfully challenged the law in federal court.

But now, even towns like Perkasie -- rural communities far from urban centers -- are writing their own laws, fearful that the sex industry will continue to fan out and find them unprepared.

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