OCEAN CITY – The controversy surrounding sexually-oriented businesses in Ocean City resurfaced this week as the Mayor and Council were presented with a plan for zoning and licensing sexually oriented businesses.
The re-emergence of the issue resulted in the unanimous decision to extend the current moratorium on the sex shop trade for another four months.
Comprehensive Planning Director Jesse Houston and City Solicitor Guy Ayres presented the Mayor and Council with two ordinances that would allow for sexually-oriented businesses in designated areas, but would also provide a safeguard for the town against First Amendment lawsuits.
The issue of sexually-oriented businesses first arose earlier this year in March, when an adult retail store, SexStyle, opened in the Bayside Shopping Plaza on 137th Street and Coastal Highway. The opening of the store left many residents as well as council members questioning just how many of these stores could set up shop around Ocean City. The controversy resulted in the City Council passing a moratorium, halting any further sexually-oriented businesses from opening to allow officials time to review the licensing and zoning regulations of sexually-oriented businesses.
With the moratorium nearing an end, Houston presented the Mayor and Council with a proposed ordinance and maps that would outline exactly where sexually-oriented businesses could appear.
Houston explained that after the May 1 public hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission, he and Ayres met to create an ordinance that would regulate the zoning areas for the businesses as well as provide enough areas for the sexually oriented businesses that would fit with the First Amendment. Houston added that the zoning moratorium would expire on Oct. 7 and the licensing moratorium would expire Oct. 2, leaving the council little time to adopt an ordinance.
Currently, the establishments that fall under this moratorium are adult arcades, adult bookstores, adult novelty stores, adult video stores, adult cabarets, adult theaters and adult motels. When the moratorium lifts, these establishments could be allowed access to Ocean City.
Houston presented two ordinances and two groups of maps to the Mayor and Council. The first ordinance calls for a distance of 600 feet from property line to property line between a sexually-oriented business and specific facilities outlined in the ordinance. The facilities include places of religious worship and activities, educational facilities, public parks and recreational areas, public beaches, the Boardwalk, dry nightclubs or entertainment businesses geared toward children and family entertainment. The ordinance also called for a 150-foot distance, property line to property line, between a sexually-oriented business and any dwelling.
The second ordinance mirrors the first with the exception of the distances. The second ordinance calls for only 300 feet between the sexually-oriented businesses and outlined facilities and measures from the property line of the facility to the nearest point of the building in which the sexually oriented business is located. A 150-foot distance is still required between a sexually-oriented business and a dwelling, but measures from the property line of the dwelling to the nearest point on the building of the business.
The reason for the second ordinance is to cover any future lawsuit over First Amendment violations. Houston explained that the first ordinance only yields 29 acres of developable land for sexually oriented businesses.
“Guy expressed some concerns that maybe that wasn’t enough,” Houston said, adding that the second proposed ordinance yields 37 acres of developable land.
“Why would we have to supply more land?,” Mayor Rick Meehan asked, noting that of the roughly 1,500 business licenses in Ocean City, only one is a sexually-oriented business.
Ayres explained that with the first ordinance, there were very few areas that yielded property that could be viable.
“If this is challenged in court, I want to be able to look the judge in federal court in the eye and tell him that there’s ample opportunity,” Ayres said.
The concern is that if the town does not expand on the potential areas for sexually-oriented businesses, a lawsuit could ensue.
To clarify the situation, Houston presented the Mayor and Council with two sets of maps, which showed the areas where sexually-oriented businesses could be built under the first and second proposed ordinances. Under both ordinances, no sex shops could be placed along the Boardwalk or in the downtown area.
Some of the areas that could be zoned for sexually-oriented businesses in the future include the Phillips parking lot south of Fishtales on 21st Street, the Islander Motel on 20th Street, parts of the 45th Street Village, the parking lot to the north of Seacrets, the 52nd Street Candy Kitchen, Fager’s Island, the Bonfire Restaurant, the Bayside Skillet, the Fresco’s parking lot, sections of the Gold Coast Mall, two commercial blocks on 122nd and 124th streets and much more. Ironically, neither ordinance would allow for the current location of the town’s sole sex shop. However, because it is already established, it will remain where it is.
The Mayor and Council were shocked with the amount of land that could potentially be developed into sexually-oriented businesses. Of the 410 acres of commercial land available, the two ordinances allow for either 7 or 9 percent of the commercial acreage to be developed into sexually-oriented businesses.
Despite the council’s response to the amount of land being made available, Ayres maintained that the city must protect itself against a lawsuit.
“That would be my concern, that by limiting so much, you’d be inviting somebody that looks for these types of challenges,” Councilman Jay Hancock said of the potential for lawsuits. “I’m not advocating these stores, but I am advocating staying out of federal court.”
Councilwoman Maragret Pillas suggested that a compromise between the 300-foot and 600-foot proposals be made. Houston agreed that more scenarios could be presented to the council but that the moratorium would need to be extended.
“This is a lot to think about, this is going to affect a lot of people and their properties,” Councilman Jim Hall said, agreeing that an extension to the moratorium was necessary.
The council voted unanimously with Councilman Lloyd Martin absent to extend the moratorium four months from its expiration date and continue to look at more scenarios.