NEWS

Too Sexy for My Neighborhood

Community members don't want sex shops, but politicians are hamstrung by First Amendment protections

Danny Becton, who's running for Jacksonville City Council for District 11 in 2015, challenged the granting of a permit allowing a shuttered Burger King on Baymeadows Road to become a bikini bar.
Dennis Ho
The Jacksonville Planning Commission unaminously voted on Nov. 14 against allowing a bikini bar 
on Baymeadows Road.
Dennis Ho
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The concept that "sex sells" doesn't hold much water when it comes up against the concept of "not in my backyard."

In two cases, a proposed sex shop and 
a bikini bar both ran head-on into the 
NIMBY syndrome.

On Nov. 14, the Jacksonville Planning Commission listened to the complaints of about 60 people protesting a zoning exception that would allow a shuttered Burger King on Baymeadows Road to be converted into the Paradise Bikini Bar, selling alcohol and featuring women dancing in bikinis.

The commission voted unanimously against it, saying it was not a good fit for a community working to revitalize itself.

Attorney Karl Sanders, who represented businessman Ticco Zhao, who wants to build the bikini bar, said his client has not determined whether he will appeal the issue to the Jacksonville City Council.

"I'll consider all the facts, but in my six years on the council, I don't see where one of these types of bills have improved the overall health of the community," City Councilman Stephen Joost told News4Jax.com prior to the Planning Commission vote.

Sanders said he has a hard time understanding how the bikini bar would affect the area, which is a major street with restaurants and a bank. He said the Planning Commission decision was incorrect and said the First Amendment is on his side.

"The First Amendment does not discriminate. It guarantees freedom of speech to everyone, including speech that a majority of us may find disgusting or morally offensive," Sanders said. "But it does mean that the government can't require a zoning protection for protected speech, whether it be a proposal for a new church or a bikini bar."

The Doll House, a nude bar that operated on Atlantic Boulevard for 25 years, endured several legal challenges because it was located across the street from Assumption Catholic Church and Bishop Kenny High School and near a residential area. In Jacksonville, bars with nude dancers are not allowed to sell alcohol.

After the Florida Department of Transportation took that property for a highway project, owner Charlie Hartsock found property along Philips Highway — he's now building a new club there. There was no telephone listing for Hartsock and the old club telephone number has been disconnected.

Danny Becton, who's running for City Council in 2015 for the District 11 seat which includes the location for the proposed bikini bar, challenged the granting of a permit and ran afoul of former City Councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins when he suggested the bikini bar would fit better in her Englewood neighborhood, which already has some adult entertainment establishments, including Wacko's Bar & Grill, a strip club.

"Rest assured that we are no fan of Wacko's and the rest of the adult entertainment industry located on Emerson Street. We would love to have it leave our community for the very same reasons that Danny Becton stated as to why they don't want it in their community. However, whether or not we like it or not, this industry has a right to be there as granted by the Supreme Court," Jenkins said in a statement. "So we do our part and make sure they follow our laws and our city ordinances."

But Becton said the decision prevents a cascade of other adult entertainment venues wanting to open in the area.

"Once you allow that use, it is difficult to not allow the second guy to come in. That first door into our neighborhood is very important."

Becton said he had never been in a bikini bar, but he's heard "it's close to nudity without being nude."

Jenkins, president of the Greater Englewood Neighborhood Association, was the author of the current zoning ordinance dealing with bikini bars.

Residents living in the Baymeadows area feared the bikini bar, featuring scantily clad, dancing women, would hurt property values, would increase crime in the area west of Interstate 95, and was inconsistent with the other businesses in the area.

"This is not a positive influence on the community," Becton said. "It is very obvious, when you look at place where businesses like these exist, it goes downhill."

While the bikini bar has already received a liquor license, it had to request a zoning exception that allows both alcohol and dancing, Sanders said.

Becton presented petitions with more than 500 signatures to the Planning Commission, expressing opposition to the zoning change.

It was not a case of "not in my backyard" in Clay County, but a case of "not in my county."

Clay County Commissioners did just what their attorney urged them not to do when they refused to make changes to the county's land-use code to permit adult entertainment stores in specific zoning districts. Right now, the county has an ordinance banning adult stores anywhere.

"This is an issue we are going to have to deal with. Putting our heads in the sand is not going to work," Mark Scruby, the county's attorney, warned the commissioners at a Nov. 13 meeting.

During a public hearing, a parade of county pastors weighed in, telling the commissioners that a sex shop was not a good fit in the county, and warning them it could lead to a lowering of property values, and bring prostitution and other crimes to the area.

Currently, Clay County has no sex shops or adult entertainment businesses, but it recently received a request from a real estate agent asking about the procedure for opening a store that sells adult materials.

Scruby told the commissioners they could not ban adult stores based on content, but could regulate their placement by zoning.

The commissioners, in a 5-0 vote, asked Scruby to seek legal help from a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law to see if their current ordinance could be revised to keep sex shops out of the county.

"I do not know if it's enforceable," Scruby said of the existing ordinance.

He warned the elected officials that adult entertainment businesses are considered protected speech under the First Amendment, making it very difficult to legally oppose them. Stores selling sex toys have sprouted up in Waldo, St. Augustine, Yulee and in several locations around Jacksonville.

During the public comment period, several residents and pastors told the county to do whatever they could to keep out sex shops.

"Once they get a toehold, you aren't going to be able to get them out. It will be like a tick on a blue dog's back," Middleburg resident David Chesser said.

"This is not right in God's eyes," he said. "You're looking at prostitution moving in. You are looking at crime moving in."

Christian Faith Center Pastor Mark Sellers said he opposed allowing adult stores in 
the county.

"It's a moral issue. We want to keep this out of the community," he said. "We have stand up for what we believe is true."

Pastor Harry Douglas, of the Middleburg Church of God, told the county commissioners, "We will be praying for you to make the right decisions." 

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