Editorial | It’s time for new strip club rules in Horry County

08/17/2013 12:00 AM

08/15/2013 7:07 PM

Horry County Council acted rightly when the majority voted Tuesday to advance regulations that update and tighten controls on adult entertainment businesses. What are commonly known as strip clubs or topless bars can't be banned, but they can be limited to certain locations and regulated in how they operate.

The regulations will be up for a public hearing and possible final approval at the Sept. 3 meeting.

We're not prudes, and presumably the customers and employees in adult entertainment venues are consenting adults, but we are all for improving the area's image. We don't believe that the sight of these businesses in prime tourist corridors promotes the kind of image that most residents and tourists are seeking.

County officials have known since 2000 that the 21-year-old ordinance governing adult-oriented businesses needed updating if it were to be effective. That was when the regulations of the clubs were thrown out in a lawsuit. That left nothing for enforcement except the zoning part of the code, which limits the venues to only a few locations. The county also uses nuisance laws, which require action after the offense has occurred rather than preventing it from occurring. These actions have been used, for example, to shut down places where prostitution was believed to have taken place, or violations of liquor laws.

Attempts have been made several times since 2000 to update the ordinance, but each time council members failed to follow through. The vague law that remained resulted in some enforcement actions against strip clubs dragging on for years as the businesses appealed and often won based on the vagueness of the laws.

One such case that became famous, or infamous, was the Pink Pony, whose prominent location near the main entrance to Garden City Beach galled visitors and second-home owners for years as it worked its way through a series of appeals.

Strip clubs have a history here that coincides with the rise of golf. Such establishments are rarely found in significant numbers outside of tourism destinations and big cities, so this is not an issue everywhere. However, where such businesses like to locate, many local governments have produced laws that have been tested in the courts and found acceptable. That means it is possible to limit locations, and regulate how they operate, especially regarding their hours and what the performers can wear.

The county's attorneys say they have thoroughly researched the proposed new rules and they have all withstood court challenges elsewhere. That is one reason why the council refused to delay action for more study.

The history of strip clubs here began with the opening of a facility on U.S. 521 near what was then Waccamaw Pottery. That sparked a drive against such businesses, and coincidentally started a political career.

Liz Gilland, former county council member and chair of the council, had a radio show at the time. “It just appalled me'' that the club opened across from what was then the area's biggest attraction other than the beach, the outlet mall at Waccamaw Pottery, she recalled in a recent conversation.

Gilland's position then, as it is now, is that the area has made its reputation as a family resort and although it must allow such businesses to exist, “they don't have to be in our faces,'' she said.

She used her radio show to organize against such clubs, did the research, and presented an ordinance that was eventually adopted. The majority of residents were with her, and felt strongly enough to campaign for new laws.

The council at the time was reluctant to act, though, Gilland recalled. They agreed to put the question to the voters in an advisory referendum. It passed with 76 percent in favor, and after that the council passed the ordinances.

Since then, Gilland says, not one legal strip club has opened, though a number of allegedly illegal ones have.

Around the same time, Georgetown County also became alarmed at the possibility of strip clubs. Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville was county attorney at the time, and said recently that he used an ordinance based on information from a lawyer's seminar on the topic.

The key is that such businesses must be allowed to exist somewhere, to comply with constitutional requirements. Georgetown County allowed them in industrial and a few other zones that the clubs apparently never found desirable. None has ever opened in the county.

The reason there are no legal adult entertainment venues in Horry County is that they all got licenses as restaurants, bars or other businesses, County Planner Janet Carter told the council. That is why most of them would have to move to allowable locations under new rules, if they pass. Or, as the county's expert attorney in these matters, Scott Bergthold, said Tuesday night, they could stay where they are and operate as the businesses they were originally intended to be.

Bergthold's remark came in reply to questions from a council member who seemed concerned that a lot of businesses might have to shut down if the new rules pass.

The council also addressed the concerns of some Carolina Forest residents that one allowed location would be along U.S. 501 near their community, but the businesses could be there now if it wished.

The proposal does expand the possible locations for adult entertainment, which Bergthold said will make the rules less challengeable in court.

No rules are going to be perfect, or are going to mean some businesses won't take the county to court over them, which costs taxpayers money.

Still, as Councilman Al Allen said, sometimes a local government must stand solid for the desires of the community to restrict certain kinds of businesses for the good of the quality of life of the majority.

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