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Right Ascension Operating as Adult DVD Empire In Zoning Squabble

Pittsburgh- Since opening its distribution center seven years ago in Thorn Hill Industrial Park, Right Ascension Inc. has gone about its business in Marshall without attracting much public attention.

But on the Internet and in trade circles, the family of dot-com sites, which includes DVD Empire, Adult DVD Empire and Gay DVD Empire, has been flying high.

Those two distinct spheres have been on a collision course since September, when R&D Land Partners informed the Marshall planning commission that Right Ascension wanted to more than triple the size of its facility at 2140 Woodland Road.

The proposal has prompted neighbors to wonder: When is a DVD distribution center really a supersized adult video store?

When its online showroom features adult DVDs, adult movie downloads and adult-themed novelties, as the opponents believe?

Or is it only when, as the township solicitor says, it has a real-world store with walk-up customers?

In a narrow, 3-2 decision, with one abstention, the planning commission Nov. 6 recommended approval, saying it lacked the authority to determine whether the distribution center constitutes an adult-oriented business. The proposal goes before the township supervisors Dec. 10.

“Everybody up here is sympathetic, but you have to understand our role here,” said planner Tom McElree. “As the planning commission, we don’t have the luxury to tour the business or have the owner say, ‘Yes, we are operating an adult-oriented business.’ That’s not our job.”

The decision didn’t sit well with about 35 residents at the planning meeting, many of whom live in the abutting Windsor Manor community.

David Cooper, who submitted a list of opponents’ concerns, wants the supervisors to intervene on their behalf. He also has filed a complaint with the township zoning board.

“I just want to make it crystal clear,” Mr. Cooper said, “they operate under a number of adult-oriented Web sites. It’s our understanding this is a corporate headquarters, and the majority of these activities take place there.”

Walk-in customers or not, the opponents contend that Right Ascension is an adult-oriented business which, among other things, cannot be situated within 600 feet of a home or 3,000 feet of another adult-oriented business — the existing DVD Empire facility, as George Mezey sees it.

Right Ascension, added Mr. Mezey, who lives on Woodland Road, is “not only a distribution center, but there are servers, Internet sales, retail sales, used DVD sales … .

“Clearly that could meet the definition of an adult book store. All we’re asking is for you to enforce your zoning ordinance,” said Mr. Mezey, who has hired his own attorney.

The commission went the extra step in fielding the neighbors’ concerns, perhaps because Right Ascension co-founder and President John-Michael D’Arcangelo would not answer any of the residents’ questions directly.

On one point, everybody seemed to agree: The e-commerce business founded by Mr. D’Arcangelo and Jeff Rix, a pair of computer programmers who met at Thorn Hill while marketing gas masks and fire extinguishers, has been a success story.

According to a March 2001 Inc.com article, DVD Empire was incorporated as Right Ascension Inc. in 1997 with $6,000 in startup capital. By 2000, the operation had outlived its original Mars location and become a privately held company with $16 million in sales, 25 percent of which came from its Adult DVD Empire site.

Adult DVD Empire has been named the Best Retail Web site the past four consecutive years by AVN, a national adult industry trade group. The co-founders were featured in a recent AVN Monthly article titled “50 Under 40: The Most Influential People in Porn.”

The proposed expansion calls for a 43,000-square-foot addition to the 17,000-square-foot center that employs about 60 programmers, Web designers, customer service agents, packagers and movie reviewers. Mr. D’Arcangelo said no more than 30 additional workers would be added, an estimate at which the opponents skoffed.

The latest plan avoids a wetlands area, provides additional screening and maintains an 80-foot swath of trees by Windsor Manor.

Mr. D’Arcangelo also suggested he’d be willing to treat the warehouse windows with dark filters to discourage voyeurs or retail customers, not that any have ever been seen.

“It’s a distribution center, period,” he told the board. “Since we’ve been there, we haven’t had a single incident of someone showing up and trying to walk into the premises.

“It’s never even happened once,” he said, “even by happenstance or accidentally.”

Mr. Cooper originally had no idea what Right Ascension’s business might be, though the corporate title seemed to fit what he had first been told.

“When we moved into Windsor Manor,” he said, “we were told by our Realtor that they were a distributor for religious materials, such as Bibles.”

It wasn’t until the proposed expansion, he added, “that we discovered the township had no idea what was being distributed from that location.”

Nicole Zimsky, planning officer, said the township actually had learned of the adult DVDs in 1999 prior to the occupancy permit being issued.

The building inspector, she said, noticed the adult DVDs. He alerted the township manager, who then asked the solicitor about them.

The solicitor, she added, said “the facility was a distribution facility and that it did not make a difference what they were distributing.”

Planning commission members Ken Lewis, Tom McElree and Jeff Davison voted to recommend approval of the expansion. Al Tarquinio and Maggie DeMacio were opposed, and Ron Baling abstained in the Nov. 6 vote.

Drawing some of the loudest applause of the night was Alicia Wiesemann, of Windsor Manor.

“I want to put a face on this,” she began. “You will be responsible,” she told the planners, “for putting an adult business 85 feet from my five children. That will be on your conscience — that you will be putting it behind my children.”

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