Adult store argues ruling

Lawyer tells judge business on U.S. 1 is really a theater

Appeal of county decision

Board had ruled shop was in violation of zoning regulations

October 13, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A lawyer representing an adult entertainment store in Elkridge argued yesterday in Howard County Circuit Court that his client's business was actually a theater and permitted under zoning regulations.

Yesterday's arguments were the latest in a long legal battle over the future of Adult Video & Books, owned by Nathaniel Lightfoot, on U.S. 1.

Lawyer Howard J. Schulman told Judge James B. Dudley that the store was a theater -- a use permitted in manufacturing zones like the one where the store is located -- because it has several viewing booths that show adult movies for a price.

Schulman is appealing a decision by the Howard County Board of Appeals in August 1998 that would have forced the business to close. The board backed a zoning department finding that the store was a retail establishment operating in a heavy manufacturing district since 1994.

Schulman said yesterday that the Board of Appeals erred and used too strict a definition of theater when it voted to close the store.

In court papers, Schulman used a dictionary to define "theater" and described the business: "In order to be admitted to the viewing booth area where films and movies are displayed, a patron is required to make a $2 token purchase. Each token costs 25 and permits approximately 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of viewing time. There are 10 booths on the premises."

Schulman said in an interview that the county is trying to stifle free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

"The county is using the zoning ordinances as a pretext to silence the message because they don't like the content of the communication," Schulman said.

But Deputy County Solicitor Paul T. Johnson said the viewing boxes did not constitute a theater and were a side business to the store's magazine and video trade.

"This is not a movie theater," Johnson told the court.

It is "not as if you get to watch a complete movie," Johnson said later, even if you pay the initial fee.

In an interview, Johnson said the county was not trying to stifle an adult entertainment business.

"The principle involved here is not about the county not allowing adult entertainment businesses," Johnson said. "This is a retail use not permitted in a manufacturing zone."

Lightfoot's lawyers had also argued before the Board of Appeals that the store was a warehouse, which is permitted in manufacturing districts. But the board disagreed, and Schulman did not raise that issue yesterday.

Dudley did not issue a decision yesterday.

Schulman is representing Lightfoot and an Ellicott City adult book store, the Pack Shack, in two other Circuit Court cases that question whether the county is violating his clients' constitutional rights by trying to close the stores.

The Pack Shack faces closure because of a county ordinance, passed in 1997, that seeks to confine adult entertainment businesses to business zones.

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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