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New obstacles for sex clubs?

Tacoma, Washington- Opening a sex club in Tacoma is about to become more difficult.

The Tacoma City Council is considering changes to the city’s land-use code that would add a breed of business called “sexual encounter establishments” to the list of adult businesses the city regulates. A first reading of the proposed ordinance is scheduled for the City Council meeting Tuesday.

If approved, the change would mean any public or private club where members meet to engage in sexual activity would have to follow the same zoning rules that already apply to topless clubs, strip bars, adult theaters, bookstores, video stores and novelty shops.

Sex clubs could locate only in a part of the city zoned for adult businesses – the Tideflats, Nalley Valley or parts of South Tacoma. And even in those areas, they wouldn’t be allowed within 1,000 feet of another adult business, a residential zone, a park, a library, a day care center, a church or a school.

There aren’t any such clubs currently operating in Tacoma – at least not any that city officials know about.

The proposed regulation is a response to last year’s opening of what was billed as a gay social club along downtown Tacoma’s Antique Row. Neighboring merchants complained that the Load Zone Fellowship, which contained more than two dozen 6-by-8-foot rooms, was really a place where men congregated to have sex. But the city appeared powerless to regulate it.

City officials closed the club in September for fire and safety code violations, but admitted they wouldn’t have been able to do much about the place if it met all the existing code requirements.

As a result, they set about looking for ways to tighten the rules in case some future entrepreneur decided to open a bathhouse or some other kind of sex club in Tacoma.

In October, the City Council took the first step by adding sexual encounter establishments to the list of businesses required to receive a license.

Officials modeled the definition of a “sexual encounter establishment” from the City of Los Angeles, said Kyle Crews, assistant city attorney. It defines a sexual encounter establishment as somewhere other than a hotel or motel that offers a place where the public or members of a club may congregate for sex, for the “exposure of specified anatomical areas,” or for “wrestling or tumbling” between persons of the opposite sex.

Now, anyone who wants to open a sex club will be required to pay $2,400 and be subject to a series of regulations including disclosing who owns the club and submitting to fingerprinting by the police department.

The proposed zoning change is the second phase of the city’s response.

During the months that the Load Zone Fellowship was open, merchants complained that condoms and syringes littered the sidewalk on a street where business owners labored for years to clean things up.

Don Purcell lives downtown near the defunct club. He supports the city’s action, but wishes government moved faster.

“I was a little annoyed they didn’t do anything sooner,” Purcell said, adding, “But the city really came on and defended this shopping area.”

Nigel Turner with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department praised the city’s response.

“If these types of facilities can’t be banned outright, we want to make sure they’re reviewed carefully,” he said.

Turner said he intends to work with the city’s tax and license department to go a step farther and make sure that prospective sex club operators offer counseling and medical testing.

There are obvious health risks associated with a place where people have anonymous sex with multiple partners, he said.

Crews, the assistant city attorney, hopes Tacoma won’t need to make use of the new sex club rules any time soon. He noted that no new adult stores have opened since the city adopted new rules for adult businesses in the late 1990s, and that Tacoma has no topless clubs even though they are allowed in certain places.

But at least now if someone tries to open such a club, the city has some regulations on the books to regulate it, Crews said.

“But that assumes people freely admit what they are,” he said.



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