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Oak Harbor sex club regulations back under discussion

Interim rules regulating the locations of sexually oriented businesses in Oak Harbor are once again arousing debate.

At a recent Oak Harbor Planning Commission meeting, the topic brought out strong feelings from several commissioners.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and this is the first ordinance that’s made me angry,” Commissioner Mark Wiggins said.

The issue before the commission revolved around three interim emergency ordinances adopted by the City Council in March. One banned public nudity, another approved licensing and regulation requirements for new adult business, and a third put into place specific areas where such businesses could be located.

All the ordinances were temporary, however, and require that permanent regulations be adopted. The first two rules will likely remain the same, but the third may need revision. Planning officials have been examining the city’s options ever since the council’s March decision.

Cac Kamac, a senior planner with Oak Harbor’s development services department, said the city really has just two choices when it comes to the creation of zoning for sexually oriented businesses. U.S. Supreme Court and state court rulings have made it clear that banning them outright is unconstitutional, but municipalities can establish areas where they can be located, he said.

“Zoning is a very effective tool in regulating these uses,” Kamac said.

One method, known as “concentration zoning,” works by limiting possible locations to specific areas within city boundaries. The interim rule, which established buffer zones around churches, schools, and residential areas, closely resembles this type of zoning. It narrowed possible sites to just three parcels along Goldie and Gun Club roads.

The alternative form is “dispersion zoning.” It also uses buffers to limit where such businesses can locate but instead of focusing them to one area, they are spread throughout the city. This type of zoning is designed to reduce the chances of creating pocket districts of strip clubs.

Both forms of regulation have their own advantages and disadvantages, Kamac said. While concentration zoning is cheaper for the city to implement, easier to evaluate, and offers more control over the total growth of such uses, they can be subject to increased crime.

Kamac provided the commission with a stack of studies examining the issue in other cities. A 1986 study in Austin, Texas, reported that the crime rate in an area with two sex businesses was 66 percent higher than in an area with just one.

Other studies showed that crime rates increase further when located near drinking establishments. A 1991 study in Garden Grove, Calif., claimed that a newly opened bar less than 500 feet from a single adult business caused serious crime to skyrocket by 300 percent over the next year.

Although Kamac said these new ordinances will prepare the city for any future strip club applications, commission members seemed more interested in banning sex clubs period, despite the existing court precedents. Wiggins called the judges who made the rulings “idiots” because it creates a “trap” in which the city is now forced to adopt rules that permit sex businesses.

“I have a real tough time understanding why we can’t just say, ‘No,’” Wiggins said.

Planning Commissioner Keith Fakkema asked about the recourse of adopting a ban, whether a future strip club merchant would have to go to extremes such as taking the city to court in order to challenge an ordinance that outlaws sexually oriented businesses in Oak Harbor.

Development Services Director Steve Powers agreed that the court precedent does take some decisions away from the city. However, he reminded the commission that the city council is the body charged with adopting ordinances; the planning commission’s job is to make a recommendation for which type of zoning should be implemented.

Planning Commissioner Nancy Fey said that while she agrees with Wiggins, she also understands that the city has to move forward and adopt rules that will protect itself from any future applications.

“I’m just very sorry it’s gotten to the point where our community has to address something like this,” Fey said.

The commission did not make a decision Tuesday evening but opened a public hearing that will remain open until its next meeting on August 24. The commission is expected to adopt a recommendation then. The issue would then proceed to the city council for approval. Comments can be mailed to 865 SE Barrington Drive, attention Cac Kamac, or e-mailed to ckamak@oakharbor.org.

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