There’s one business in the new city of Brookhaven that the newly elected City Council isn’t yet sure how to handle: The Pink Pony.
The popular Buford Highway strip club is the only adult entertainment business in the new city. But some council members, including Mayor J. Max Davis, are worried about a “flood” of strip clubs trying to open up shop as the area transitions from unincorporated DeKalb to the city of Brookhaven.
Council members brought in three lawyers on Dec. 22 to advise them on the best way to draft an ordinance regulating adult entertainment businesses.
Strip clubs and other adult businesses have had contentious relationships with nearby local governments. Other new cities, such as Sandy Springs, have attempted to heavily regulate or shut down such businesses within their borders.
Attorney Scott Bergthold, who’s had experience with similar cases, said because strip clubs are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, the city can regulate only the secondary impacts of such businesses, not nude dancing.
“‘We don’t want porn in our town,’ all that stuff doesn’t work on a constitutional level,” Bergthold said. “It has to be the secondary effects.”
He told council members those secondary impacts — such as prostitution, drug trafficking, noise and crime – have been widely documented in other cities.
But Aubrey Villines Jr., an attorney representing the Pink Pony, told the council that the business has been a good neighbor for the past 20 years. “You need to decide if you want the Pink Pony in this city or if you want to put us out of business,” he said.
Villines said he doesn’t understand why the council is worried about a proliferation of new strip clubs moving to town in the next few months. He said for many years, the Pink Pony has been the only strip club in the area.
“It’s kind of like talking about the Communists coming over,” Villines said. “It hasn’t occurred … There’s been no adult clubs coming in. It hasn’t happened in DeKalb and it isn’t going to happen in Brookhaven.”
Villenes also reminded council members to think of the other bars, restaurants and hotels along Buford Highway that benefit from the Pink Pony.
“All those legitimate businesses, believe it or not, rely on the crowds that the Pony draws,” Villines said. “It’s going to impact them greatly. We’re big business.”
Bergthold said the Supreme Court has ruled that governments cannot simply outlaw strip clubs through zoning ordinances. In order to force them to move, they must be offered a reasonable site to relocate. But due to buffer requirements around residential areas, there are very few sites in the city limits that would be available.
“The zoning option is lousy, to be as frank as possible with you,” Bergthold said.
He suggested allowing existing clubs to stay because there’s nowhere they could move. “It’s not an option to amortize adult uses if you don’t have a location to amortize to,” he said.
Bergthold suggested Brookhaven implement an ordinance similar to Sandy Springs, which would prohibit the sale of alcohol, prohibit contact between dancers and patrons and prohibit “back-room shenanigans.”
“In this context, it doesn’t affect the dancing because you can watch it on a stage that’s 18 inches off the ground,” he said. “It stops the condition that gives rise to prostitution and drug activity.”
Attorney Tom Curry suggested the city commission a study of crime in the area around the Pink Pony.
“It would be good to have your own information,” Curry said. “You want to put yourself in the best position when the argument comes that you’re enacting this … because you don’t like nude dancing.”
Bob Dallas, a Dunwoody attorney and former DeKalb County planning commissioner, suggested the city use zoning tools available in DeKalb to limit strip clubs. “Eliminating adult entertainment is something new cities can achieve,” Dallas said.
Dallas said the city needs to “thread the needle” with its ordinance to allow the Pink Pony to continue to operate but prevent any new strip clubs from opening in the city.
Special Land Use Permits were created to handle the expansion of churches located in residential areas of DeKalb, Dallas said.
The permits require a public hearing and a vote by a zoning board of appeals.
Special Land Use Permits allow for a particular use of land, such as a church or child care facility, in the existing zoning district instead of rezoning the property, according to DeKalb County.
Like strip clubs, churches are constitutionally protected, Dallas said.
“That allows for input to determine whether it meets the standard,” Dallas said. “That’s an important tool.”