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Question of adult use or misuse

TAMPA – When the owners of a new nightclub on West Shore Boulevard filed legal papers with the city, they billed themselves as a comedy club.

But some people aren’t laughing.

Instead of comedians, the featured entertainment at the Maxxim Men’s Club and Steakhouse, which opened in March, is women in T-backs and pasties dancing on a stage.

Other business owners in the neighborhood think the club, located in a spot that doesn’t allow sex-themed business, violates the city’s adult use ordinances.

City officials say they’re investigating, but so far, Maxxim hasn’t been cited for any violations.

“We’re trying to find out if they’re actually operating an adult business,” said Thom Snelling, the city’s deputy director of Business and Housing Development.

While pressure from Tampa residents who object to Maxxim and other businesses continues, city officials are feeling some heat from another source – the Hillsborough County Commission.

Commissioners voted June 13 to tighten their own adult use ordinance. They also voted to put a referendum on the November ballot to gauge public support for regulating adult businesses to “the fullest extent allowed by law,” a move designed to encourage Tampa to take a tougher stance on the businesses.

City officials say they won’t be influenced by the vote.

“We have an existing ordinance in effect that we’re enforcing. So there’s no reason for this referendum,” said city attorney David Smith. “People who are telling others that there’s more we can do are not familiar with the law.”

But in April, the city began marshalling forces from the Legal, Code Enforcement, Business Licensing and Police departments to create a strategy for better enforcing existing regulations.

“We’re trying to make sure that everybody who is involved in gathering the evidence knows what the rules are and is proceeding appropriately,” Smith said.

Some of the city’s rules require the businesses to have an occupational license and business operating permit, and ban alcohol in nude clubs. There are specific definitions of nudity, and zoning laws say adult businesses must be at least 1,000 feet from each other, and 500 feet from offices and residences.

Existing county rules require adult businesses be located a minimum of 2,000 feet from homes, churches, child care centers and public recreation areas. They must be at least 2,500 feet from schools.

Those distance requirements for adult businesses would be difficult for Tampa to achieve, because it’s so developed, said Gloria Moreda, manager of Tampa’s land use coordination division.

“It’s a First Amendment protected right and the courts have said you can’t outlaw them. Our code cannot be structured to effectively eliminate a viable site for them to operate,” Moreda said.

Extending the residential distance requirement and adding schools, day care centers and churches might cause a problem.

“I do wonder if there would be any viable locations in the city limits,” she said.

Ron Rotella, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, which represents 400 businesses, has been urging the city to take steps against Maxxim.

Even before the club opened, he sent letters to the city, raising questions about parking requirements. Now he wants the barely-clad female dancers gone.

“If the city’s position is they feel their ordinances are adequate to govern adult related uses then enforce them,” Rotella said.

Similarly, residents living near Envy, a club on Kennedy Boulevard at Himes Avenue where female performers dance in T-backs and pasties, have been lobbying the city for months to take steps to close the club down. A ½-inch stack of letters from angry people living near the club sits in the City Council offices.

Mary Lou Compton, who lives near Envy, understands the right of the businesses to operate. But she wants to keep them away from neighborhoods and wishes the city could enforce the regulations more effectively.

“Something needs to be done but I don’t know what the answer is,” she said.

Envy received a citation for an illegal change of use in December, but no fines have been levied, pending a police investigation.

Kathy Jenkins, an outspoken opponent of Envy, said city officials have advised her to give them some time. But she’s eager to see something happen.

“As much as the neighborhoods try and as patient as we try to be with letting the system work, they stay there,” she said. “It’s sad that Tampa has become known for all their clubs.”

A recent study revealed the Tampa Bay area ranks third in the country for its number of adult businesses, behind top-ranked Las Vegas and Cincinnati.

Tampa has 23 regulated adult businesses, including strip clubs, bookstores, video stores and movie theaters, according to a spokesman in the city’s business tax division. Casual observers might see what appear to be many more.

“We have a lot of illegal locations,” acknowledged Moreda.

That’s caused strife within the adult business community. Legal adult business owners in an industrial area near Tampa International Airport have complained to the city about the proliferation of illegal operations in the neighborhood, said Cyndy Miller, the city’s director of Business and Housing Development.

City officials say they have closed down some adult businesses, including a strip club called Pink Flamingo in Ybor City, which officials said was illegal because it was in a historic district. That case, though, is in litigation, along with more than 12 other adult businesses, Moreda said.

Mayor Pam Iorio said previous lawsuits have shaped the city’s adult business landscape.

“It could very well be that the county’s ordinance has not been challenged because they don’t have the number of businesses in their area. In Tampa, our ordinances tend to be challenged,” she said. “Where we can do something about it and make the law more stringent we will. The city has a real history of doing that.”

As an example, she pointed to the rule requiring 6 feet between dancers and patrons, a regulation the county plans to adopt when it considers its new ordinance in August.

City Council member Rose Ferlita, who’s running for County Commission, calls the referendum on whether to strictly regulate the businesses a waste of time and “silly.”

“It’s after the fact. The ordinance will be done,” she said.

But she said she recognizes that Tampa sometimes falls behind on enforcement of adult business rules because the departments charged with monitoring the establishments are busy with other city needs.

Maxxim manager Brian Roche defends the club as a “good corporate citizen.” Businessmen in the area like the lunchtime buffet, and one-third of the clients are women and couples, he said. He’s getting ready to plan a ladies night, and he’s proud of Maxxim’s food.

“It’s a men’s club with a menu, a steak house with a view,” he said.

In addition to steaks, food options include grilled asparagus, shrimp cocktail and sandwiches. A recent dinner special featured a thick filet topped with flaky crab meat.

“Our food is excellent,” Roche said. “If you hear anything about the place, you hear about the food.”

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