By Melissa Weinman and Collin Kelley
Local politicians have spent a lot of time talking about strip clubs lately.
Atlanta City Council is the latest metro area government to go to battle over adult businesses.
An Atlanta councilman proposed an unsuccessful measure that would have displaced the adult businesses along Cheshire Bridge Road. The new city of Brookhaven and the city of Doraville are headed to court after being sued by strip clubs for adopting regulations the clubs say would destroy their businesses.
And Sandy Springs has been in litigation for the better part of a decade with strip clubs located within its borders
What’s going on?
Attorneys and politicians can’t pinpoint a single factor that has led to the recent interest in measures that would alter or ultimately shutter adult-oriented businesses, such as strip clubs and head shops.
Each case is slightly different. But many government officials claim adult-oriented businesses bring crime and noise, and lower surrounding property values. The business owners argue that they have property rights and First Amendment protection for their businesses.
Sandy Springs’ City Attorney Wendell Willard said though the city has been in litigation with strip clubs for six years, officials feel like it has been worth the cost and effort.
“I think what you look at is community standards of what citizens say they’re looking for in the safety and protection of their community. And the council listened to their citizens,” Willard said. “We recognize that [combining] nude dance clubs with serving alcohol does bring about sometimes criminal elements, and that’s what we’re trying to protect against. We think the outcome will be supportive of the effort that’s been put forth.”
Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan’s high-profile campaign to shut down adult-oriented businesses along Cheshire Bridge Road ultimately failed after a 9-6 council vote on June 3.
The majority of council members objected to the measure because had it passed, Atlanta’s zoning code would have allowed businesses such as the Onyx club, Kong’s Body Shop and Inserection to relocate just about anywhere in the city.
Atlanta’s Senior Assistant City Attorney Jeff Haymore said that only two of the city’s 12 council districts offered no compatible zoning available for adult-oriented businesses.
“Except for [Districts] 5 and 10, there is at least one piece of property in each district that meets the minimum legal requirements for an adult business,” Haymore said.
Under the city’s zoning code, adult businesses are allowed in both light and heavy industrialized areas and three commercial districts. In all instances, the adult business would have to be a minimum of 500 feet away from a residential district and 1,000 feet away from a church, park or school.
Had Wan’s proposals been approved, seven identified businesses along Cheshire Bridge would have been forced to vacate Cheshire Bridge Road by 2018.
Wan described his legislation as “critical” to residential neighborhoods around Cheshire Bridge and other businesses on the street that he alleged had been intimidated to not speak out in favor of the ordinance. “There is a 14 percent vacancy rate along Cheshire Bridge and declining property values,” Wan said.
Attorney Alan Begner, who represents four of the adult businesses on Cheshire Bridge Road, said Georgia has strong zoning laws that afford property owners many rights.
“You know, under the law, if you put a business out of business, if you amortize them out like Atlanta wanted to, you don’t shut them down. You have to find other locations for them to operate at and recoup the costs of them moving,” Begner said.
Councilman Howard Shook, who represents a portion of Buckhead on the council, said he voted against the measure because it would likely result in a lawsuit. He pointed out that the plan was also panned by the neighborhood-friendly zoning review board.
“There are other methods of spurring redevelopment in neglected commercial corridors that don’t rely on legislation that opponents can’t wait to get into a courtroom,” Shook said in an email. “I look forward to supporting a pragmatic, legally- sound plan that reflects a consensus among the appropriate property owners and other stakeholders.”
Councilwoman Felicia Moore, who represents another portion of Buckhead, also voted against the measure.
“As a council member who is very supportive of community initiatives, this vote was one of the most difficult that I have faced while on council. In the end, like Mr. Wan, I had to be supportive of the constituents that I represent in that at least 80 percent of the areas in which these businesses could relocate were in District 9,” Moore said.
Begner said in Atlanta’s case, the measure appeared to be a response to a group of residents and business owners in the area who wanted to get rid of the adult businesses.
“The people who wanted this to happen were primarily some neighbors and some developers, but not all,” Begner said. “This is a common theme.”
In Brookhaven, the City Council supported a sexually-oriented businesses ordinance that will ban nude dancing and the sale of alcohol in the same venue.
The ordinance, adopted shortly after Brookhaven incorporated, prompted the city’s only strip club – the Pink Pony – to sue.
City Attorney Bill Riley declined to comment on the litigation, as did Attorney Scott Bergthold, who helped draft the ordinance.
The city released the following statement from the city attorney’s office: “Cities across Georgia and the nation have ordinances regulating the location and operation of sexually-oriented businesses to prevent the negative effects associated with these types of establishments, such as crime and adverse impacts on nearby properties.
“These negative effects have been recognized in numerous land use studies and crime reports, as well as in judicial decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, federal appeals court and the Georgia Supreme Court.”
The city’s statement went on to say that Brookhaven’s ordinance was modeled after those that have already been upheld in court, and are similar to laws on the books in DeKalb and Fulton counties, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Doraville.
“The residents and businesses of Brookhaven should have the same protections as those provided in surrounding communities,” the statement said. “Brookhaven will defend its ordinances, which are designed to protect public safety, health and welfare, and further the city’s goal of ensuring that Brookhaven is an excellent community in which to live.”
Begner, who also represents the owners of the Pink Pony, said he doesn’t understand why Brookhaven decided to prioritize new regulations for strip clubs so soon after the city’s incorporation. The Pink Pony, he said, is in a commercial area at the southern tip of the city and away from sensitive uses like schools or churches.
Begner said in Brookhaven’s case, there doesn’t appear to be any outcry from citizens about the Pink Pony.
“The ‘why’ is most peculiar in Brookhaven and Doraville,” Begner said. “It’s one thing to open a club near a church and anger residents. It’s another to put a club out of business and not pay them for it when almost no one cares.”