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Shining a light on adult businesses

Burlington City, NJ- Strip clubs, massage parlors, and adult video stores in Burlington City would convert from dimly lit dens with private chambers to bright, open rooms under a proposal before the Common Council to regulate sexually oriented businesses.

The ordinance, which could be put to a vote this month, also would require such places to apply for an annual license, which allows much greater control over the businesses.

Police Chief John Lazzarotti, who requested the ordinance, said the measure was proposed as a means to better police the businesses, not in reaction to any specific problems. The city has two strip clubs, an adult video store, and at least one massage parlor.

Officers already make unannounced stops but don’t have unobstructed views once inside because of doors and partitions, the chief said. The proposed ordinance expresses concern about prostitution taking place and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

“This would give us a clear view of everything that is happening,” Lazzarotti said. “The adult-business establishment thinks we are out to get them, but we are just trying to make it more difficult for illegal activity to occur.”

Video-viewing booths could not have doors or curtains and would have at least one side open so the person inside is visible. Overhead lighting would be required anywhere patrons are allowed to wander.

Violations would carry fines of up to $1,000 and could trigger revocation or nonrenewal of the license.

The licensing approach is not unique to Burlington City, though towns with sexually oriented businesses often use zoning regulations instead to monitor such places.

Since 1999, state law has prohibited sexually oriented businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of a similar establishment or a school, school bus stop, public playground, or house of worship.

A measure pending in the Legislature would allow towns to enact conditions stricter than those being considered in Burlington City. The bill would increase that distance to 2,500 feet and force sexually oriented businesses to close by 11 p.m.

If the bill becomes law, lap dances would be outlawed – it mandates a distance of at least six feet between entertainers and patrons.

“People don’t want these kinds of clubs in their town,” said State Sen. Leonard T. Connors Jr. (R., Ocean), who sponsored the bill. “But if they exist, the municipalities should be able to govern them the way they see fit.”

Burlington City’s plans are being watched by the New Jersey Adult Cabaret Association, said executive director Jeff Levy. The group has offered to help the Burlington City business owners should they decide to challenge the ordinance.

“At this point, we are taking a wait-and-see approach,” Levy said. “Our critics are making decisions based on assumptions. The things they think are happening inside the clubs are not happening. We are an industry of fantasy, not reality.”

The owners of the businesses that would be affected declined to discuss the proposed law.

The 20-page draft of the Burlington City ordinance will likely be adopted when the council meets later this month, Council President Joseph H. VanLoan said.

“It is something that we know is strong,” he said, “but we agree with the chief on his findings and his assessment.”

At least one South Jersey town has an ordinance similar to the one being proposed in Burlington City.

Westville, a tiny Gloucester County borough, has no strip clubs or adult video or bookstores, but keeps a law on its books calling for licensing should any decide to open. The law was adopted in 2001 after officials noticed such businesses springing up in surrounding towns.

“You can’t keep a legal business out of town,” Westville Business Administrator William J. Bittner said. “But you can protect against the possibility of that type of business coming in and regulate – based on demographics – where it sets up in town.”

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