City ponders limits on adult businesses

    The mere hint of an adult business expressing interest in Decatur has initiated a proposed change in the city’s zoning regulations, and the Decatur Plan Commission on Monday evening got its first glimpse at an amended zoning ordinance aimed at limiting adult and sexually-oriented businesses in the city.
    Decatur City Attorney Tim Baker said that a “general inquiry” was made recently concerning Decatur’s existing regulations governing adult and sexually-oriented businesses, “and that prompted us to take a look at what, if anything, the city should do.”
    While Decatur, and other municipalities across the nation, are legally prevented from refusing to allow those types of adult establishments within their corporate limits, Baker said steps can be taken to severely restrict where certain adult or sexually-oriented businesses may be located.
    So with that goal at the forefront of recent discussions, Baker researched how other Indiana cities — Indianapolis, Gary and Fort Wayne — have addressed adult businesses in their communities. He also reviewed studies conducted by the Minnesota attorney general’s office, the American Planning Association, and the cities of Rochester, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York City to attempt determine the potential adverse impact on neighborhoods caused by an influx of adult firms.
    Those impacts, he said, range from the potential deterioration of neighborhoods near adult businesses to lower property values that can result from a concentration of such businesses. The draft amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance, prepared by Baker, outlines the city of Decatur’s desire to “lessen the detrimental and adverse effects that adult uses and sexually-oriented businesses have on adjacent land uses and to protect and promote the health, safety and welfare of the residents” of Decatur.
     Addressing a dozen area residents on hand for the plan commission meeting at the Riverside Center, Baker made it clear that instituting a citywide ban on some or all types of adult and sexually-oriented business is simply not an option. He said court cases heard in federal courts have ruled that adult businesses, however undesirable they may be in a particular community, nonetheless enjoy the right to freedom of expression.
    “It’s a First Amendment issue,” Baker said. “We are not regulating those businesses based on content. We are regulating them to address what the courts have called ‘adverse secondary effects’ related to protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public.”
     The proposed new zoning regulations would allow adult businesses only in portions of the city now zoned for industrial use. Current city zoning laws as written would permit adult businesses in B-2 and B-3 business areas, but tougher restrictions written into the proposed amendment would place those locations off-limits to adult and sexually-oriented establishments.
    The proposed amendment, as currently written, would require that sexually-oriented businesses be located at least 1,000 feet from any residence, place of worship, school, hospital, public park, public library or child-care facility. Permits would be required of any such business, and criminal background checks would be performed for each owner and/or applicant. Signs at adult businesses would also be limited, with the proposed ordinance banning rooftop advertising and flashing lights, and limiting advertising signs to 32 square feet.
     Area residents on hand to hear about the city’s approach to regulating adult businesses spoke in favor of the toughest possible restrictions.
      Bill Hirschy supported changing the city’s zoning laws “to not allow this (adult-oriented business) in our community.”
     Kevin Mahlan, pastor of the Damascus Road Church, said his congregation is “strongly in favor” of amending zoning laws “because of the (undesirable) element these businesses could bring into our community.”
    Jeff Smith, pastor at New Beginnings church, said he has seen the detrimental impact that sexually-oriented businesses often brings to a community, and has been forced to deal with the aftermath.
    “This is not about being a prude. This isn’t about religion. It’s about protecting your community,” he said.
    Members of the Decatur Plan Commission include chairperson Barb Engle, Bill Karbach, Steve Hakes, Greg Kitson, and city council representatives Matt Dyer, Cam Collier and Charlie Cook. Roger Gage is the city's zoning administrator.
    Collier urged the board "to be proactive rather than reactive" in limiting adult businesses in Decatur.
    The plan commission will meet again later this month, and will submit its recommendations for changes in the city's zoning law at a later date.