Report on porn sparks debate in Howard Co. sex shop case

Attorney argues video and convenience store offerings could fit bill

January 27, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Recently, private investigator John E. Burns went on a hunt for pornography and other adult material in Howard County.

He found it everywhere: Playboy magazines at convenience stores in Columbia and Ellicott City, sex toys in The Mall in Columbia, adult films at numerous video stores around the county.

Burns' report is now an exhibit of evidence in the Pack Shack vs. Howard County case, which will decide whether the adult book and video store can stay open -- and which might have broader implications for county efforts to regulate such businesses.

Among the key questions in the case, which continues tomorrow, is one that has troubled other localities: What is an adult entertainment business?

Adult material is prevalent, according to the report, though few store owners and managers in Howard County want to talk about it.

According to Burns, hired by the Pack Shack to compile the report, the following stores have significant or substantial amounts of adult material: Suncoast Motion Picture Co., Spencer Gifts and Music Land in The Mall; West Coast Video in the Normandy Shopping Center in Ellicott City; Royal Farm Stores in Columbia and Ellicott City; and the High's Store on Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City.

Burns also found adult videos at numerous independent video stores around the county, including Video Magic and Crystal Video in North Laurel, Glenelg Video in Glenelg, and Round About Video in Woodbine.

Representatives for many of the stores mentioned in the report said their proportion of adult material is small compared with the rest of what they stock.

But one independent video store owner said he'd go out of business if he couldn't rent X-rated movies.

When presented in court, the Burns report sparked a lively debate -- between county lawyers and Howard J. Schulman, the lawyer for the Pack Shack -- which can be boiled down to the matter of defining an adult entertainment business.

Howard County passed an ordinance two years ago restricting adult businesses to districts zoned for commercial use.

The legislation requires that adult stores be at least 500 feet from homes, churches, day care centers, schools, parks and public libraries, and no closer than 2,500 feet to another adult store.

No clear definition

But the law never clearly defined what is an adult business and what isn't -- and now that vague wording appears to be giving county lawyers a headache.

According to the ordinance, an adult video store is one "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."

But "significant or substantial" is not defined.

And if every convenience store in the county could be defined as an adult store, and adult stores have to be at least 2,500 feet from each other, Schulman argues, then the law will surely have a chilling effect on places like the Pack Shack.

"The major thrust of the evidence we're presenting to the court is that the law has as its intent, as well as its effect, to exclude adult book stores from the county," said the Pack Shack attorney.

Reluctant to comment

Echika Agugua, manager of the Royal Farm Store on Lark Brown Road, had no idea his store had been the object of an investigation and didn't want to talk about the store's small selection of Playboy and other adult magazines -- a tiny portion of the total stock.

"I don't know how many titles I have," he said. "I don't know."

"You would probably be better speaking to the owner," said a clerk at Video Magic who would not give her name.

Video Magic's owner could not be reached for comment.

"We're not supposed to answer questions about our mature section," said Jeff Snyder, manager of Suncoast Motion Picture Co. in The Mall in Columbia. "We're corporate-owned, and I'd have to refer you to our media relations department."

Brant Skogrand, a spokesman for the company in Minneapolis, said adult movies -- none of them X-rated -- constitute probably 2.5 percent of the stock and it would be an exaggeration to call it an adult business.

"We focus more on the hit movies like `The Thomas Crown Affair' and `The Matrix' and other popular videos," he said.

Out of sight

Adrian Mihaescu, owner of Glenelg Video, is unashamed of his adult video collection but said he would not define his store as an adult business because only 10 percent of his stock is adult and it's kept in a back room.

"My store's not primarily an adult store," he said. "My stuff is not in plain sight. In order to get to it, you have to be looking for it. It's not like it's plastered on the front."

He would go out of business if he removed adult material from the store, he said. He said he -- and all other independent video stores -- depend on it to stay afloat in a competitive market.

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