Maybe you have seen the ads from the Pink Pony strip club calling on the city council to “Leave the Pink Pony alone.” I wish it were as simple as that.
When we were elected, the councilmembers were asked if we wanted to limit the negative secondary effects of strip clubs and other sexually-oriented businesses that operate, or could locate, in Brookhaven. We all said “yes.”
It is both a proven fact and common knowledge that such businesses hurt property values, discourage other family-oriented businesses, and often bring blight, crime, drugs and prostitution to communities. Court after court has recognized these negative secondary effects.
So the city council passed an updated ordinance regulating sexually-oriented businesses that is similar to—but more defensible than—the one we inherited from DeKalb County, and exactly like the ones passed by several cities around us.
The only difference between Brookhaven and DeKalb County is that our elected officials are not willing to have the city accept cash payments from strip clubs in exchange for the special privilege of ignoring the law. The Pink Pony was party to such a deal with DeKalb County, and claimed that Brookhaven was bound by the settlement agreement they entered with the county years before Brookhaven became a city.
Our attorneys advised us that the settlement agreement was unenforceable against the city and, more important, that the constitutional guarantee of equal protection requires the city to treat similar situations similarly—in other words, you cannot cut a special deal with one strip club without giving the same pass to other sexually-oriented businesses.
Being advised that the settlement was possibly illegal and could invite more litigation, we did not agree to such a settlement. After all, we were elected to uphold the law and the Constitution. The DeKalb County Superior Court agreed with us that DeKalb County’s deal with the strip clubs, including Pink Pony, does not bind the city of Brookhaven.
The Pink Pony and a vocal group of citizens have done a good job of clouding the issue. Our ordinance does not force the Pink Pony to close. It requires that it complies with the same regulations that clubs in many cities in Georgia and across the country have to follow. But those clubs are still in business, and the erotic dancing continues, subject only to regulations that the courts have found to be reasonable measures to address the crime and other secondary effects of the sexually-oriented business industry.
The courts have ruled that strip clubs and X-rated businesses cannot be banned or even zoned out. They have First Amendment free speech protection, and the city’s ordinances have been careful to follow the court precedents on this issue. In fact, the city has had to designate parcels in Brookhaven where such businesses can operate—on Peachtree, Apple Valley and Buford Highway. Being a small, densely-populated city, the buffers from homes, churches and schools had to be reduced to 300 feet to meet legal muster.
So we are back to the question of how do you limit the negative secondary effects of X-rated businesses? You pass an up-to-date, legally-enforceable ordinance to control the time, place and manner of how such businesses operate. The Pink Pony challenged our ordinance, claiming it was unconstitutional. In December, the DeKalb County Superior Court dismissed all 15 counts against the city, concluding that the Pink Pony’s arguments had no legal merit.
It was a resounding victory for the city. The strip club has appealed to the Supreme Court, but we are optimistic for a similar result there.
Can we “leave the Pink Pony alone” in the sense of not requiring them to follow the law? Even if they up the offer to $200,000 a year?
Not a single attorney, and we’ve now consulted six of them, has been able to suggest a “settlement” at any price that gives only the Pink Pony a special deal that would be legally valid. The Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection requires that you treat all similar businesses the same way; you cannot let some businesses violate the law but not others.
It is offensive to be accused of fighting our own citizens. I’m quite convinced that our citizens want laws that stand up in court, abide by the Constitution and protect our quality of life.
Rebecca Chase Williams represents District 1 on Brookhaven City Council.