Cheetah pounces on Sarasota County

SARASOTA — Following through on a threat launched in August, Cheetah Lounge Inc. has filed a federal lawsuit against Sarasota County and its decade-old “anti-nudity provision.”

The north Sarasota strip club’s 16-count lawsuit contends the county restricts adult entertainment businesses through a “Byzantine framework of zoning, licensing and regulatory provisions.”

Despite the Nov. 12 expiration of a 10-year grace period that allowed exotic dancers there to perform nude, an attorney representing Cheetah Lounge contends club operations — and au naturel dancing — will remain, at least for the time being.

“The business will continue to operate with the same attention to detail and criminal behavior it has, and it will continue to run a clean and legal business,” said Luke Lirot, the Clearwater attorney who has made a cottage industry of defending numerous adult businesses nationwide, including the infamous Mons Venus club in Tampa.

The Cheetah’s lawsuit, filed Oct. 5 in U.S. District Court in Tampa, argues that the county rules violate the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment, which protects free speech and expression, is often cited by adult entertainment businesses when fighting government restrictions.

The lawsuit also contends the county’s ordinance “arbitrarily imposed” a “spontaneous and baseless” sunset provision in 1996 that negatively impacts the 3939 N. Washington Blvd. club.

Additionally, Lirot argues the Cheetah has been “denied due process of law, and has been injured because the county restricts adult business locations.

“The Plaintiffs believe that the presentation of expressive dance performances is a beneficial social activity which creates an improved self image for the dancer and joy and entertainment for the beholder,” the lawsuit says.

The Cheetah believes “no amount of money damages could adequately compensate” the lounge.

County officials, citing the ongoing and pending litigation, declined to comment on the lawsuit’s specifics.

Warren Richardson, a county spokesman, said county attorneys are preparing a response to the suit. “The county will vigorously defend its ordinance for the benefit of the community,” he read from a statement.

On Monday evening, at least, the lounge’s operations appeared unchanged.

With pulsing music blaring over club loudspeakers, dancers paraded on a pair of stages, wearing little or nothing.

A crowd of more than three dozen split their attention between the entertainers and four TVs, which broadcast the football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers.

And little is expected to change at the Cheetah in the near term. The lawsuit likely won’t be tried for a year.

Lirot said the club may request a “special exception” from the county zoning rules, and it is also obtaining an appraisal, the first step in a possible challenge under the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act.

That state law is aimed at protecting businesses and property owners by allowing them to seek compensation for lost revenue from governments if rule changes “inordinately burden, restrict, or limit private property rights.”

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