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COVER STORY : Court rulings may force cities to loosen their laws on adult businesses. But officials’ plans are raising the ire of neighboring residents, who are intent upon . . . : Bucking the Establishments

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bill Bledsoe drives through his west Long Beach neighborhood, cringing as he passes the two X-rated bookstores and the racy topless bar packed with customers.

Bledsoe worries about other adult businesses creeping in along Pacific Coast Highway just blocks from his home--further eroding an area plagued by prostitution and other crime. “Trash breeds trash,” he says with a snarl.

Like many of his neighbors, Bledsoe wants to see the pornographic haunts run out of town.

To his dismay, the city must make room for more.

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Long Beach and cities across southeast Los Angeles County are reluctantly planning to loosen their zoning laws on adult businesses so the measures will stand up in court.

For years, the cities used laws to keep adult establishments away from churches, schools, homes and parks. In Long Beach, officials earmarked the port, the airport and oil fields for adult entertainment. But court rulings, including a recent federal appeals court decision, have declared such areas commercially unsuitable.

Now, elected officials find themselves in a no-win situation. If they don’t provide the businesses new, acceptable places to operate, their cities could face costly legal battles with little hope of winning. But if the officials pass laws that more loosely regulate adult entertainment, they will face irate constituents such as Bledsoe.

“It boils down to who’s right--residents who own homes in the community or a bad element that wants in,” said Bledsoe, 64, president of the West Long Beach Assn., and a lay leader of a church in nearby Paramount. “Why should my standard of living be violated by sleazy entertainment simply because they want to express themselves?”

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Officials are considering the scaled-back laws in the wake of a federal appeals court ruling last year that stopped Los Angeles from enforcing its law against a group of adult businesses.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the city’s ordinance--which required all adult establishments either to move into specific areas or shut down--failed to provide enough suitable locations. Los Angeles had listed Los Angeles International Airport, the port and oil refineries as potential sites for adult businesses.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving the appeals court ruling as the final authority for cities in California.

Most southeast Los Angeles County cities have few--if any--adult establishments. Yet the very thought of topless bars opening down the street from playgrounds and schoolyards has sent officials scrambling to draft more flexible laws.

Earlier this year, Hawaiian Gardens decided to review its ordinance after the owner of a club that features nude dancers sued the city. Officials had closed the club for violating its adult-business law.

In Cerritos, where there is no adult entertainment, the City Council has enacted a 45-day ban on business licenses for such establishments so its staff can write a law. Whittier, which has lost a costly court battle over its adult-business ordinance, recently adopted a new measure. In Lakewood, the Planning Commission expects to review its community’s rules next month.

“We don’t have any adult businesses and we don’t want any,” Lakewood spokesman Don Waldie said with a note of irritation.

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But it is in Long Beach where the issue is most contentious.

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The city is facing lawsuits by the operator of the city’s lone topless club and a group of adult bookstores. In both cases, the businesses allege that the city violates their rights of free expression because it does not offer enough viable places to operate--effectively forcing them out of town.

Neighborhood associations and business groups, meanwhile, have attacked the city’s move to weaken its law. From the gritty neighborhoods on the westside to the upscale enclaves on the eastside, groups have flooded council members with phone calls and letters blasting the proposed changes.

“We need to fight this rip-off of the citizens of Long Beach with the toughest ordinance we can sustain before the courts,” said Bill Niemeyer, president of the Lakewood Village Residents Assn. in east Long Beach.

The City Council is considering a number of proposals that will alter its zoning law for adult businesses.

One plan, recommended by the city’s attorneys and Planning Commission, would reduce the required distance between adult businesses and residential areas from the current 500 feet to 200 feet--less than a city block. A 1,000-foot “buffer” between adult establishments and churches and parks would be eliminated.

But City Council members have balked, saying the proposal would go too far. Several also objected to a proposal to exclude adult businesses from downtown, saying all parts of the city should shoulder the burden of the new law.

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Last week, the council placed a moratorium on all permits for adult businesses--even though none are currently in the pipeline--until the matter comes up again at the Oct. 11 meeting.

Many neighborhood activists say the council should not change the law at all. They envision nude bars springing up on their corners--subjecting children to lewd behavior and bringing crime to their streets.

“I guess we’re old-fashioned, but our kids should not have to put up with this,” said Martha (Mike) Croft, chairwoman of the North Long Beach Neighborhood Assn. “We’re not setting a good example.”

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Whether the changes will actually open the floodgates to adult entertainment remains to be seen.

Long Beach officials argue they are only providing additional sites for adult establishments. Anyone who wants to start an adult business will still have to obtain business licenses, entertainment permits and other city approvals before opening.

The officials point out that the proposed law will help curtail trouble through new provisions requiring adult businesses to close at midnight and to provide security.

But city officials are also hoping that simple economics will help resolve the issue. They are betting that landowners, particularly in upscale areas of the city, will refuse to rent to topless bars and other adult entertainment out of fear that property values will plummet.

“I have no intention of allowing adult businesses in our properties,” said Jean Bixby Smith, president of the Bixby Land Co., which owns three shopping centers in an east Long Beach neighborhood where zoning laws blocking adult entertainment would be lifted. “I would not be happy if other landlords approached it in a less responsible manner.”

The debate over adult entertainment has surfaced in Long Beach at a time when such businesses appear to be on the wane.

For years, when the city was a thriving Navy port, its downtown core was known for a raucous night life that included adult theaters and massage parlors as well as seedy motels, tattoo shops and bars. But the businesses were driven out in the 1970s as the city launched an ambitious downtown redevelopment campaign. In 1977, the city adopted its adult-entertainment law, which prohibits the businesses within 500 feet of residential areas and 1,000 feet of schools, churches and parks. Since then, only one new adult business has opened, Angels nightclub in west Long Beach.

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Today, there are just seven adult businesses in the city--including five adult bookstores and a massage parlor--about half as many as a decade ago.

“There isn’t a great demand for these particular activities,” said Councilman Thomas J. Clark, whose eastside district would gain new areas for adult businesses under the changes. “The market is limited.”

Still, Clark and other council members find themselves tiptoeing through a political minefield.

More than 100 people showed up last week0 during the City Council’s first hearing on the subject. Several demanded that the council fight any changes, even if it means going to the U.S. Supreme Court. One man brought a petition signed by his neighbors calling on the council to stand strong.

Others simply issued warnings.

“If you vote . . . yes on this amendment, be prepared for what will happen to you at reelection time,” said Julie Bescos of the Virginia Country Club Lane Improvement Assn.

In the end, city leaders say they will have no choice but to change the law. “We’re dealing with a difficult situation,” said Mayor Beverly O’Neill. “No one wants to see adult businesses near our homes, schools and churches. I know all the council members are struggling with this. If we don’t write a new ordinance, adult businesses will be free to go in anywhere.”

A federal judge has expressed doubt that the city’s existing law is constitutional.

In July, U.S. District Court Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer barred the city from stopping topless dancing at Angels until the issue can be decided at a full trial. No trial date has been set.

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Angels, which had featured dancers in bikinis for seven years, began offering topless dancers in July. “The demand is (for) topless,” owner Renee Vicary said.

Pfaelzer, in her ruling granting Angels a preliminary injunction, said Long Beach’s ordinance mirrored that of Los Angeles. The Long Beach law “does not appear to provide sufficient . . . reasonable properties” for a topless club to operate, she wrote.

Among the places that Long Beach’s existing law has zoned for adult entertainment are Long Beach Airport, an oil refinery, a power plant and the city’s port.

“It’s basically a fraudulent ordinance,” said Vicary’s attorney, Roger Jon Diamond.

Vicary and other business owners contend that the city’s attempt to force them to move into adult-entertainment zones would effectively run them out of town because the zones lack viable commercial locations. As a result, the city is violating their First Amendment rights to free expression, the owners say.

“I went through World War II to see that freedoms would be kept,” said Robert Blake, president of Fluffy Inc., which operates South Seas adult bookstore in west Long Beach. “Burning books is not part of those freedoms.”

City officials say they aren’t trying to infringe on the owners’ rights.

“I don’t think anybody is talking about driving them out of town,” said Deputy City Atty. Bill Keiser. “No one wants to take away their freedoms. We are just trying to control their locations within the constraints of constitutional law. I don’t see this as any different than other zoning decisions.”

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Even under the proposed new law, Angels may face more trouble over topless dancing.

The club has not been included in the new adult entertainment zones the city is considering. City officials say Angels is too close to a residential zone. Vicary says her location is ideal because it is on the western edge of town in a manufacturing district isolated from homes and schools.

Vicary says she’ll fight to keep Angels topless.

“They cannot keep us out of Long Beach,” said Vicary, 33. “Everybody’s answer is, ‘We don’t want any topless bars in Long Beach.’ It cannot be done. They can’t stop me from being here.”

Vicary, Blake and other adult business owners accuse city officials of yielding to a small number of vocal constituents. The owners said their establishments don’t bother most residents.

“I am a very religious man who believes in a higher power and so on, but for politicians to follow the whims of small, noisy groups is wrong,” Blake said. “It appears to me that religious do-gooders are stepping into areas that they shouldn’t step into.”

Council members in Long Beach and other Southeast cities say they have an obligation to take action on behalf of their constituents. The officials bristle at the notion of courts cutting into that authority--saying free expression stops at their city limits when it runs counter to community mores.

“Cities should be able to make the final decision based on the will of the people,” said Hawaiian Gardens Mayor Kathleen M. Navejas. “It takes control away from us and the people we’re elected to represent.”

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Hawaiian Gardens already has done battle in court--and faces the prospect of more litigation in the months to come. In April, the city was able to close down a club that featured nude dancers after a federal judge decided the club violated a municipal ordinance prohibiting such businesses within 500 feet of churches. The owner, Thomas Shelley, has appealed. No court date has been set. So far, the city, which has an operating budget of $3.3 million, has spent about $150,000 on legal bills.

But the legal battle has raised new questions for Hawaiian Gardens. The city, only nine-tenths of a square mile in size, finds itself in a quandary because of its size. Attempts to keep adult businesses away from homes, churches and schools could, in effect, drive the businesses out, say critics of the law.

Shelley’s attorney, Diamond, believes the city’s law will be overturned by higher courts.

“It’s unconstitutional because it totally bans adult businesses in the city,” Diamond said. “We’ll challenge that in court for as long as it takes.”

Throughout the state, adult businesses have sued cities--and won--over the years. Diamond, who represents many adult businesses, has successfully challenged laws in Anaheim, Stanton, Santa Ana and Westminster.

Whittier is among those that have lost in court.

In 1977, the owner of an adult theater in uptown Whittier sued the city over its ordinance, which prohibited businesses from selling sexually explicit material within 1,000 feet of churches or schools. The Pussycat theater was located within a block of four churches.

The law was struck down in 1988 by a federal appeals court. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, ending a 12-year legal battle that cost the city nearly $500,000.

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In the years since, Whittier adopted a series of temporary laws to keep adult businesses out. A permanent ordinance, which takes effect next month, erases the 1,000-foot church buffer zone, freeing up more space for adult businesses.

Today, there is no adult entertainment in the city. The Pussycat theater, damaged in the 1987 Whittier earthquake, has reopened as a traditional movie theater.

But officials remain wary about scaling back their law.

“We would all like to have more local control (over) these types of businesses in the community, but the (courts) have said you can’t absolutely prohibit them,” Councilman Bob Henderson said. “So, we’re going to comply with the law.”


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