Laws tangled on adult clubs

Crackdown attempt on Block illustrates cities' dilemma

February 09, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

While Baltimore strippers were still celebrating their recent exemption from state nudity laws, attorneys for 11 Block clubs stood last week before the city zoning board appealing the revocation of their licenses because of prostitution convictions.

The dichotomy of the two events illustrates the tangled condition of city and state adult entertainment laws in an era when governments across the nation are trying to make their cities more attractive by cracking down on open sex.

Like many U.S. cities, Baltimore has spent the past nine years trying to restrict adult entertainment in hopes of cleaning up seedy areas of the city and luring residents back to downtown.

But as city governments from New York to Sarasota, Fla., are finding out, messing with the laws that might be stretched to cover such establishments -- land use and free expression -- can often leave cities in worse shape.

In New York, a cabaret circumvented city laws restricting strip joints within 500 feet of a home or school by opening 40 percent of its business as a game room to minors. Although an appeals court last week struck down a lower-court cabaret exemption, the case is a prime example of absurdities that are emerging from the nation's renewed battle over adult entertainment.

"You have to find the right balance," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has advocated tougher city laws to eradicate The Block. "But we can't ignore the fact that there is a market out there for this kind of entertainment. The issue is, do we want it anywhere in the city? That is something that needs to be debated."

In Charlotte County, Fla., zoning officials are trying to revoke the bar license of the Emerald City strip club after they overlooked the proximity of the club to a school. In Providence, R.I., the Town Council recently revoked the liquor licenses of two cabarets that were offering nude dancing.

Beth Haroules, staff attorney for the New York office of the American Civil Liberties Union, attributes the crackdowns to the rise of conservatism combined with a new "zero tolerance" effort to make cities more attractive.

"It is a sign of the times," said Haroules, who unsuccessfully opposed the New York zoning law. "You have something that is politically popular, with people being more conservative and politicians pandering to the populace."

Baltimore is no exception. Earlier this decade, the Schmoke administration began considering ways to clean up strip clubs on The Block, a former burlesque row with a national reputation that has been accused of degenerating into dens of prostitution and drug dealing.

In November, the state Board of Liquor License Commissioners fined one Block club, The Flamingo Lounge at 403-405 E. Baltimore St., $3,600 after city police officers observed patrons performing sex acts on dancers in the corner. The dancers and attorneys for the club denied the allegations and are appealing the fine. The city and state passed laws in 1993 and 1996 to crack down on activity in the clubs in hopes of changing them into the tourist gentlemen's clubs made famous in cities such as Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta. Baltimore went so far as to recently install new brick sidewalks along the block -- at a cost of $80,000 -- to entice club owners to spruce up.

But success has eluded Baltimore, because half of its adult entertainment laws fall under the city Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, while the remainder are enforced by the state Board of Liquor Control Commissioners.

Judge Richard T. Rombro ruled Jan. 21 that a 1993 state law banning nudity in the clubs contained a grandfather clause that exempted any establishment that was open before the law took effect. As a result, the judge's decision against the liquor board's attempt to prosecute an East Baltimore bar owner for allowing nude dancing resulted in dancers in most of the city's 35 adult entertainment clubs being able to shed their clothes.

State Sen. George W. Della, a South Baltimore Democrat, sponsored the 1993 bill when Schmoke announced his intent to move the Block clubs. Della, who feared that the clubs would move into residential neighborhoods, is back to the drawing board to sponsor new legislation.

"I think we should correct whatever Judge Rombro thought was wrong with the law that had for many years been in effect," Della said.

The City Council is to vote on a bill within the next month that would put enforcement of the adult entertainment laws into the hands of the liquor board and provide the first comprehensive supervision of city adult entertainment.

Bar owners say they just want to make money. Peter Prevas, the attorney who successfully represented the Spectrum Gentleman's Club in the 4100 block of E. Lombard St. in challenging the 1993 nudity law, said owner Reginald D. Krishner fought the nudity law to protect his livelihood.

"The financial gain is enormous to these businesses, and you can see more on prime-time TV than the current liquor laws allow," Prevas said. "My personal opinion is that if the clubs can make an honest buck, it will certainly take away an impetus to get away with dishonest things."

Sun staff writer Lisa M. Respers contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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