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Blue Boutique may pose first test for new Salt Lake City Mayor Becker

Salt Lake City- [Salt Lake City Tribune] Call it Movie Buffs, the sequel.

The politics of selling sex always has been big business in Utah, with the Legislature even once anointing a porn czar. So perhaps the blowup over Blue Boutique is no surprise, given the tradition of taking on the tawdry.

But suddenly, the controversy over allowing a lingerie and adult-novelty shop on Salt Lake City’s east bench promises to be the first significant debate for Mayor-elect Ralph Becker [picture] and a new City Council.

It is a quarrel pushed by the public that the politicians hoped to avoid.

Forget green-tinged services, better bike trails and urban renewal. The capital’s newly elected leaders may spend the next months talking rubber penises, lewd lingerie and percentages of paraphernalia. And the discussion ultimately could continue in court.

“It could become one of the bigger cases the city has seen in a long time,” City Councilman Soren Simonsen says about the all-but-certain lawsuit if the capital slams shut Blue Boutique’s new door on the corner of 1400 East and 2100 South.

Councilman-elect Luke Garrott shares that angst.

“We are going to get into deep constitutional trouble if we try to classify sexual products which include literature and art,” he says.

Still, a growing number of parents and other picketers are preparing to rush City Hall on Tuesday to make their case to the council for clean neighborhoods. The dust-up shares the same themes that led to a 1990s raid – then a high-profile court battle – of two Movie Buffs video stores in Utah County that carried adult movies.

Blue Boutique’s owners, long-term lease in hand, hope to open a new store Dec. 15 at 1393 E. 2100 South. The retailer, which has outlets on North Temple and in West Valley City, recently was pushed out of its 20-year home in the heart of the Sugar House business district to make way for a six-story office tower.

But during the past two weeks, east-siders have rallied to impede the move in the name of protecting children, given the store’s proximity to Highland High School and Sugar House Park. Parents have packed neighborhood huddles, hundreds have signed a petition, and the brood has blitzed city officials with e-mails.

And they have an ally in Councilman-elect J.T. Martin, who soon will represent the neighborhood.

“You know that old adage: location, location, location. I think that applies here,” Martin says. “It would never be allowed in a neighborhood section in Europe.”

In its former location, three blocks west, Blue Boutique was in a commercial business district. The new store is in a neighborhood commercial zone which, while different, does not restrict the retailer.

A debate to change the zoning could ensue, but that process takes months. Instead, City Attorney Ed Rutan has launched a legal review of the city’s sexually oriented business (SOB) ordinance that has governed shops like Blue Boutique since 1988.

Rutan notes the city historically has taken a black-and-white approach: If sexually explicit items constitute less than 15 percent of retail floor or shelf space, as the ordinance states, a business is not an SOB. Under that standard, Blue Boutique never has been tagged an SOB.

But the issue gets murky when the rest of the rule is considered. The law also states that if stores include merchandise such as photographs, films, instruments or paraphernalia that depict specified sexual activities as “one of its principal purposes,” a business could be classified as an SOB.

“The question is: Is it one of their principal purposes?” Rutan explains. “People have raised the question as to whether that second prong would apply to the Blue Boutique. Those are issues our office is looking at right now.”

Blue Boutique, which has operated without complaint for two decades, stocks dildos, adult videos and other erotica in an adult-only area cordoned off from view either inside or outside the store. Most of the merchandise is lingerie, costumes, shoes, even kids clothes.

If the city decided to enforce the SOB ordinance differently, Blue Boutique could be banished to an industrial zone. What’s more, similar businesses like Cahoots on 9th and 9th and Dr. John’s Lingerie and Novelty Store could be swept out.

That bothers Mayor Rocky Anderson and Mayor-elect Ralph Becker.

“The concept of applying an ordinance retroactively is something that causes me concern,” says Becker, an urban-planning lawyer who makes it clear that since the city has issued a permit, the boutique has a right to do business at the new location.

“As a city, we have a responsibility when we’ve done that.”

Most council members also are squeamish, arguing that such an exclusion greases a slippery slope toward bookstores, frame shops with nudes and even places like Target that may sell lubricants.

Rutan vows a legal opinion will come soon since the owners hope to open the shop in two weeks. But if the SOB enforcement is changed, expect to see the city in court.

“We relied on it. The Bank of Utah relied on it [for the construction loan]. The Blue Boutique has relied on it for 20 years,” boutique attorney George Hunt says about the SOB ordinance. “If the city tries to change its interpretation in the middle of this transaction, we’ll have no choice but to take action. This is no way to run a government, to bait and switch.”

Hunt says such a move would trigger “huge constitutional issues” and send an anti-business message that could cripple the capital.

For his part, attorney and author of the 1988 SOB ordinance Bruce Baird says the rule never was intended to police such novelty shops. Instead, it was designed to target magazine shops that carry mainstream titles as a “ruse” to mask porn.

“This is much ado about nothing. It is utterly inapplicable,” Baird says. “Rocky is right on this. There’s no way in hell that applies to Blue Boutique.”

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