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Entrepreneur Challenges City's Longstanding Strip-Club Moratorium

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Matt Bors
The legal underpinnings of Seattle's 16-year-old strip-club moratorium--a "temporary" limitation that has evolved into a de facto ban on new topless establishments in the city--may soon be shaken by a legal challenge.

Robert Davis, the entrepreneur who tried and failed last year to launch a "gentlemen's club" called Shangri-La next door to the now-defunct Urban Comedy and Jazz Cafe in Belltown, has filed a legal claim against the city, alleging that the city's "moratorium on adult entertainment licenses is unlawful" and claiming $5,000,000 in lost potential revenues as damages. A claim like Davis', according to City Attorney Tom Carr, is often the first step toward a full-blown lawsuit against the city. Although Carr himself is not currently defending the city against the claim (claims against the city start out in the finance department), he notes that, in general, it's "hard to prove lost business from a business that doesn't exist"--which may be part of the reason Davis' challenge is the first claim filed against the moratorium in its 16-year history. Davis did not return calls for comment Monday.

A moratorium, by definition, is supposed to be temporary. An indefinite restriction on protected expression (like nude dancing) amounts to a de facto ban--a legally indefensible position. The city has argued since 1988 that it can't change the law until it "develops and evaluates" a study on the impact of strip clubs. To date, that study--and the "new land-use regulations" governing strip clubs that the council has tepidly requested every year the moratorium has been in effect--has not been completed ["Skimpy Evidence," Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit, Aug 21, 2003].

City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck, for one, says he's appalled at the city's lack of leadership on the moratorium. Last year, when the council extended the moratorium, Steinbrueck inserted language into the law that directed the Department of Planning and Development (which answers to the mayor) to determine where in the city strip clubs may be located. The deadline given by the legislation was September 1, 2004. To date, according to DPD spokesman Alan Justad, "we have not taken any action" on the council's request. "It's on our list of priorities," Justad added tersely. Those priorities are set by the mayor, who has done nothing since January 2004 (when he wrote a letter asking the council for its "legislative guidance" to "develop a proposal" for siting strip clubs) to promote a smarter approach to adult entertainment.

Then again--aside from directing Nickels to come back with legislation--neither has the council. Every summer, the moratorium passes with virtually no council opposition. This year, Steinbrueck insists, will be different. "My intent is not to continue the moratorium," he says. To that end, "I will not hear this issue in my committee again." Unless, that is, a lawsuit by Davis or some other aspiring strip-club owner propels a foot-dragging Nickels into action.

barnett@thestranger.com

 

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