Regulating the adult entertainment business in Horry County has been similar to the gentleman’s clubs themselves – a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Since the days the first gentleman’s club, Thee Dollhouse, opened in 1988, and the county’s first adult business ordinance written in 1989, Horry County planning and zoning officials and attorneys have had to see through the illusion of businesses trying to pass themselves off as party stores, bars and massage parlors.
If county officials haven’t seen through the plan, up pops an adult bookstore, lingerie shop or gentleman’s club. If it does see through the plan, which it is claiming it does in the new federal lawsuit with owners of The Gold Club, it then must find a balance of being lawful and keeping those clubs from having strong secondary effects on the community, such as prostitution, drug trafficking and drug use.
Without that balance comes litigation. Ask those who have been involved in it for years and they’ll admit it hasn’t been easy.
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Shoot back to Oct. 6, 1998 when Horry County passed an ordinance that limited how customers may tip entertainers and attempted to establish a 6-foot separation between dancers and customers. Two days later, The Pink Pony in Garden City Beach filed a lawsuit maintaining the law violated constitutional rights of equal protection and freedom of speech. Two years later, a federal judge ruled the ordinance was too broad and therefore unconstitutional.
Back then, county officials were working to strengthen ownership disclosure stipulations for those getting licenses for adult businesses and to clarify zoning requirements and put more teeth into the enforcement of them. Zoom to present day, and that’s exactly what county officials are still working on.
In the early 2000s, the county went to court with Excitement Video Inc. on U.S. 501 and Seaboard Street and spent four years in litigation only for the owners to reduce the amount of adult-oriented films and abide by the law. The county tried police raids in 2004 and resurrected the ordinance fight in 2005 and 2006 to no avail.
Planning director Janet Carter, who has been with Horry County through many of its battles to get an ordinance passed, knows the enforcement battle can open many new doors.
“If we go out and write a $50 ticket, we found out it ends up a federal case or a very complicated state case,” she told the Horry County Council recently.
The county even went out and hired an attorney, Scott Bergthold – who is a nationally known attorney from Tennessee – whose practice focuses on the drafting and defense of municipal adult business regulations.
Horry Councilman Harold Worley said he has faith in the work County Attorney Arrigo Carotti, the law firm Battle & Vaught, as well as Bergthold, but the history of what the county has gone through makes him trigger shy.
“I have confidence in all of them,” Worley said. “There’s no guarantee we’re going to win. There’s no guarantee if we get sued, we will win and prevail or get countersued.”
As for The Gold Club lawsuit the county is involved in, Michael Murray, the Cleveland-based attorney representing the club in the federal lawsuit, said changing the semi-nude definition would “go a long way toward resolving the federal litigation.”
Murray’s proposed change to the definition would loosen up how Horry County currently defines semi-nude and allow the dancers to expose more body parts.
It is similar to the “nudity” definition for the city of Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn., where Murray defended The Gold Club in litigation.
No definitive word on what Horry County’s response will be to the revised definition.
Courting a new Coast board member
Coast RTA welcomed James J. Elekes to the board Wednesday. Elekes, who is visually impaired, is the founder of Murrells Inlet-based Trans-Access Associates. Trans-Access is a private consulting firm to help businesses and organizations become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Elekes, who was at Wednesday’s meeting with his service dog Irma, said he has always believed “public service is one of the critical aspects of someone’s life.”
The Suffolk County, N.J., native has served as the accessible services coordinator for the New Jersey Transit Bus Service, and also was a senior technical training specialist for the New Jersey Transit Rail for more than six years.
“It’s going to be a pleasure to get my hands back into axle grease,” he said.