Planning Board Nixes Sex-Shop Ban

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The Alexandria Planning Commission last Thursday shot down a proposed amendment to the citys zoning code that would have banned any further sexually oriented businesses within its historic districts and restricted their location elsewhere within the city limits.

Voting 5-to-1 against the proposal, the board members and speakers during the public hearing on the matter alluded to a Pandoras box of issues that could have accompanied passage of the legislation.

The message such an amendment would send to merchants and entrepreneurs topped the list of side effects, prompting the question of whether the city could afford to alienate part of its tax base in the wake of the economic downturn.

When you look at the economic sustainability study that the City Council adopted, it indicated to us specifically to be friendlier to the business community, said Planning Commission member Jesse Jennings during Thursdays meeting.

This does not come across to me as giving them the benefits that they deserve I dont think thats being friendly toward businesses, Jennings said.

Old Town resident and business owner Aimee Houghton said the amendment sends an extremely negative reaction to entrepreneurs who could end up thinking, You know what? Maybe Ill go to Arlington. Maybe Ill go to Reston Town Center. Maybe Ill go to D.C.

Lotus Blooms, the newest sex accessory shop to open in Old Town and the business partly responsible for prompting official reaction, moved to King Street from Georgetown one of Old Towns competing retail districts.

In its original form, the amendment would have grandfathered in Le Tache, the first of Old Towns two existing adult-themed shops, allowing it to continue operations indefinitely, according to the initial proposal.

The proposed measure would have defined sexually oriented retail businesses as establishments that get a significant or substantial portion from wares which are characterized by their emphasis upon the exhibition or display of specified sexual activities or specified anatomical areas.
Lotus Blooms, which states on its website that its mission is to provide an elegant, relaxed, discreet environment with the educational resources necessary for women to take charge of their sexuality and foster and enhance self appreciation and allow creativity in sexual expression to keep relationships exciting and diverse, would have been forced to leave its current site within 18 months, the first draft stated.

Ann Ile, one of the co-owners of Lotus Blooms, said she was shocked to learn of the first draft of the amendment a little over a month after the stores opening.

Nobody actually approached us, Ile said. We heard it from customers and from other residents that it was on the docket so we felt like we were kind of blindsided our business was at risk without being notified ahead of time.

After hearing from commission members and the public, the amendment was changed further, allowing Lotus Blooms to be grandfathered as well, explained Barbara Ross, deputy director of the citys Planning and Zoning Department.

Although nearly all agreed that Old Towns inimitability continues to be a huge draw for the city and is worth preserving, several people during the hearing also questioned the explicit prohibition of sexually oriented businesses solely in the two historic districts.

Im personally offended that were restricting that were lawing-off a special part of the city, saying that, Youre special, youre very protected and your eyeballs and your senses are more special than the rest of us, said commission member Donna Fossum. Im really appalled at reading this.

Like Old Town, Lotus Blooms sees itself as a unique place to shop.

We are a destination store, Ile said. Weve brought money into the city by consumers that wouldve normally never come to Alexandria.

The offered change in zoning code came as a response to the flood of concerned emails the department received from Old Town residents after Le Tache opened its doors last January, Ross said while explaining the origin of the amendment.

DCist.com, a Washington-area blog, provided the headline Alexandria Residents Allegedly Having, Considering Sex for its own post on the commissions decision, at once mocking and hinting at the citys buttoned-up image.

But Old Town Civic Association President Poul Hertel, who spoke during the hearing, said his organization was very appreciative for the amendment coming forward.

According to Hertel, the arrival of Lotus Blooms was not what neighbors were looking for after Le Tache opened earlier this year.

The first store [Le Tache] has never been discreet and we frankly do not want either one of them to be grandfathered in, Hertel said.

As you well know, where one is making money and two is making money, three and four will follow, he said. As far as were concerned, this is highly unacceptable for our community.

At Le Tache, John Kenney said business has been good but did not offer any details. 

We knew it was going to be a good move. Why couldnt it be a good move? Kenney said. Its a beautiful city, youve got smart people there, its one of the most romantic cities in Virginia we dont have any problems.

In about a month, Ile said that business for her shop had been fabulous drawing upon loyal customers from its previous Georgetown location and many newcomers and sales are already comparable to the first site.

Planning and Zoning staff also offered the amendment as a balance between no regulation at all, which is the approach the city has taken to date, and a set of minimal regulations for adult-use businesses, according to the proposal.

The irony of Alexandria, a city trying to become more business-friendly, having no restrictions unlike its neighbor Arlington for a certain type of business was not lost on the Planning Commission.

On this subject, its the most friendly area in the area! said commission member H. Stewart Dunn, Jr. You couldnt find a more hospitable area than here in Alexandria to open a sexually oriented business.

In addition to the proposed ban on new adult-themed shops in Old Town and Parker-Gray, the amendment provided definitions for sexually oriented businesses and called for any similar future shops to be located at least 1,000 feet apart to keep a potential red light district from emerging.

Ile empathized with neighborhood concerns of an emerging red light district, but quickly rebutted the idea that her shop would contribute to that.

We dont want that either, but thats also not what we are, Ile said. We are completely opposite from whatever hey have in their minds about what we do.

And I dont want trashy businesses in Alexandria either, but I think they need to make it a little easier for businesses to operate.

With its denial of the amendment, the Commission also asked Planning and Zoning staff to create another proposal that would regulate exterior displays on adult-use businesses and maintain more widely palatable storefronts. The commissions next meeting is scheduled for December 1.

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