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Benicia ‘gentlemen’s club’ proposal sparks uproar and a Lawsuit

BENICIA, California – Taking a page from Benicia’s history books, a man looking to bring a “gentlemen’s club” to the city is causing a public uproar in the process.

St. Helena resident Robert Amatrone has sued the Benicia council and staff, claiming the city stiff-armed him before he had a chance to bare it all in what he claims would be an upscale affair.

Amatrone said he never had a chance to reveal the full scope of his business plans last May. He said he wanted to share a plan that included both male and female performers and serving no alcohol before the council OK’d a moratorium on new “adult entertainment” business applications.

“I think they forgot about their roots,” Amatrone said this month, before the city’s Planning Commission hammered out final details on an updated adult entertainment ordinance.

The “roots” Amatrone spoke of once lined the lower half of First Street, mingling with the city’s former waterfront industry. Although not well documented, both new and old city residents, when pressed, share stories of the brothels that thrived until the last known “house of prostitution” near West K Street went out of business in the early 1960s.

One integral difference between a potential strip club, which is legally permitted in California, and the illegal old-time brothels, is the level of tolerance afforded them in their respective times.

Lifelong Benicia resident Harry Wassmann said everyone knew that the brothels once were in the city, but were generally not troublesome for the public. It was “just Benicia” in his lifetime.

He described the strip club proposal and the former existence of the brothels as different ventures.

LAWSUIT TIMELINE

May 2007: Robert Amatrone asks a Prudential California Realty agent to gather the city’s zoning laws concerning a potential “gentleman’s club” in the area of Lake Herman Road, near Intestate 680.

May 17, 2007: Benicia City Council, approves a 45-day moratorium on any “adult entertainment” business applications. The moratorium is later extended for a year.

May: Amatrone sues the City Council and city staff for infringement of civil rights. Suit also filed against Prudential owner Steve Ridge.

August: Lawsuit against city moves to U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California.

Nov. 5: Benicia Planning Commission gives its stamp of approval to the city’s newly crafted adult entertainment ordinance.

Dec. 16: Benicia City Council is set to consider approving the new ordinance.

“The impression is that one is disguised as art, and the other is downright strict business,” Wassmann said. “I’m not saying (the brothels were) right or wrong. I’m not protecting any direction. (But) when it became more illegal in people’s minds, then it became a focus.”

He said the brothels were likely inevitable, due to the city’s easy accessibility by railroad and later, water.

“There was an accumulation of men without wives,” Wassmann said.

Times in Benicia have changed, and with the disappearance of industry from the city’s downtown has come a more family oriented community.

Earlier this month, more than 65 residents, many with young families in tow, attended a special city Planning Commission meeting designed to craft an ordinance that controls all business falling under the “adult entertainment” heading. Adult entertainment is commonly a euphemism for sex industry businesses such as strip clubs, pornographic video and book stores, and pornographic movie theaters.

Residents attending the meeting mostly shared their reasons why a business such as Amatrone proposes should not be allowed in town, even on the industrial outskirts. One resident sounded near tears upon learning that the city could not bar such businesses as strip clubs from inside city limits.

Los Angeles-based First Amendment attorney Deborah Fox said the city’s most effective defense against adult entertainment was a constitutionally correct city ordinance that controls the industry, rather than bans it. A city law attempting to squash such businesses would be overturned in court and leave no guidelines for the adult businesses.

Fox acknowledged that the city was “clearly under the microscope” in crafting its ordinance, because of Amatrone’s civil rights federal lawsuit against the city. The case initially began in Solano County Superior Court.

Benicia resident James West asked the commission to make Benicia as expensive for such a business as possible.

“They may believe that there is a demand,” West told the commission. “I don’t think so. I believe that we would be importing the demand from other places … This is corrosive to respectable women. As a husband and father to daughters, I completely reject the notion that we need this kind of business in Benicia.”

Other residents said they were “outraged,” and referred to a strip club as “filth.”

The commission approved the ordinance and passed it on for final Benicia City Council approval. The council is set to review the ordinance next month.

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