Sexually Disoriented

Politics -- not logic -- drove Council to enact the new jury-rigged SOB ordinance

Like many of Houston's topless clubs, the Ritz Cabaret tries hard to offer its patrons a taste of glamour. In contrast to the fast-food restaurants that share its strip of the Gulf Freeway feeder road, the Ritz's entrance is groomed with finicky precision, garnished with lush vegetation and uniformed valets. Half a block away is a cross street, Clarewood. On the other side of Clarewood is a field, and on the far side of the field is the Easthaven Baptist Church.

Until last week, the city considered the Ritz to be a legal distance -- 750 feet -- away from Easthaven. In fact, Ritz owner Steve Fontinopoulos chose the location because the city said it was suitable under its ordinance regulating sexually oriented businesses. But the new SOB ordinance that City Council unanimously approved on January 15 doubles the minimum legal distance between SOBs and churches, schools, daycares and parks, thus rendering the Ritz's present site "non-conforming"--in other words, illegal.

Though the councilmembers primarily responsible for the stricter ordinance swore up and down they weren't trying to put Houston's 144 licensed SOBs out of business, a report by the city's Planning and Development Department estimates that all but 16 will be forced to close as a result of the new distance requirement -- equal in length to five football fields.

SOB owners, gearing up for what promises to be a costly courtroom battle, argue that the ordinance will eliminate thousands of jobs and cost the city millions in revenue -- and that the Council hasn't even addressed the real problem: how to get rid of unlicensed businesses and prostitution fronts.

"There's only one agenda here," says Gino Barone, owner of Video X Hits. "Wipe us out."

Last May, when homeowners in affluent Boulevard Oaks and Southampton found that a planned new location for Rick's Cabaret was too close for comfort, they joined a chorus of neighborhood groups complaining about SOBs. Councilwoman Helen Huey took on their cause with almost religious zeal, promising to build "the nation's strongest, most enforceable" SOB ordinance. She and Councilman Jew Don Boney were appointed co-chairs of a committee that would, they said, try to protect neighborhoods and clean up seedier SOBs -- the "tanning salons" and "modeling studios."

But the committee quickly became distracted by the city's most visible and lucrative SOBs -- topless clubs-- taking its direction from the clubs' time-honored enemy: Houston Police Department vice officers, who told the councilmembers what new rules would enable them to make more arrests. Club owners say they received assurances from committee members that their businesses would be protected from the new laws. But when the first draft of the new ordinance was released on December 6, it did not include a grandfather clause or other protections for existing SOBs.

"That's when we knew all was lost," says SOB lobbyist Jim Short.
To many SOB owners, the planning department report proves Huey and Boney always intended to put them out of business. Though the report is dated December 20, it was never submitted to the SOB committee. On January 10, two days after the proposed ordinance first came before Council for approval, the report was released to all councilmembers in response to repeated requests. According to Huey staffer Peter Boerner, the report is moot because a computer run by the planning department pinpointed more than 7,000 eligible spots for SOBs -- plenty to ensure the industry's survival. But those locations may not necessarily be available -- they could be office buildings, shopping malls or ten-acre lots. The city does not plan to issue a list of the available addresses.

Distance is not the only provision affecting location. There's also the beefed up "residential test" that prohibits any location that has 75 percent residential tracts within a 1,500-foot radius (formerly 1,000 feet). Under the new ordinance, some undeveloped tracts can be counted residential. Apartment complexes, once counted as a single tract, will now be counted as eight residences per acre, and if any portion of the property falls within the circle, the entire property will be counted.

As for the predicament of the $2.5 million Ritz, owner Fontinopoulos wants to know what's changed in the decade since the city forced the club out of its first location, on Antoine at Highway 290, because it violated the then-new 750-foot rule.

Fontinopoulos says the new regulation proves that SOBs are never safe. In 1983, Houston passed its first SOB ordinance, setting the required distance from churches, schools and daycares at 750 feet. In 1986, that ordinance was expanded to include establishments where alcohol was served. Twenty-three topless bars sued the city and lost. During the litigation, the city had to prove that alternate sites existed for SOBs, and one of its suggestions became the Ritz's present location.

Boney says there's no need for grandfathering this time around, either, because businesses will simply move again.

"It's going to inconvenience them," he says. "But that doesn't bother me, because they've been inconveniencing the public and families and children for a long time."

In a strange twist, the ordinance outlaws the current location of Rick's, but spares the new one that prompted the council's action in the first place, according to Short.

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