The strip clubs liken it to The Handmaid’s Tale. Reno council members say it’s a long time coming.
For three years, the city of Reno has looked to regulate strip clubs downtown, an area where there has been a focus on redevelopment, attracting new stores and restaurants. In that time, there have been lawsuits, an undercover investigation and multiple council votes.
But no regulations have been approved. Yet the process is coming closer to a conclusion.
Last month, the City Council voted to continue pursuing regulations on the strip clubs as city staff continues working on an ordinance that would require the businesses to move out of downtown into an industrial zone within five years. Although strip clubs must be in industrial areas under the current zoning rules, four existing clubs are improperly zoned downtown.
How the strip clubs came to be “improperly zoned” varies from case to case, said Mark Thierman, a lawyer representing several downtown clubs. In the case of a few clubs, the zoning changed when the downtown area was tagged for redevelopment. For the city to force the clubs to move, he said, would be a violation of the owners’ property rights and could constitute a taking.
“This is crazy,” Thierman said. “We are talking about 2018, and we are going to ban strip clubs from a casino district?”
The strip clubs — and their backers — maintain that the City Council is coming up with solutions in search of a problem. At a public workshop on Sept. 13, Thierman said that the city was only inviting more litigation. (In the last year, Thierman’s clients have sued the city and threatened to sue the city over other issues.)
“There is no problem,” he said. “Where’s the beef?”
Supporters of the regulation argue that strip clubs should be regulated to prevent what case law calls “secondary effects,” anything from exploitation to negative effects on nearby businesses or properties. City staff, in presentations to council, has said that although strip clubs have a First Amendment right to exist, municipalities can regulate the businesses to prevent those effects.
The last three years: In 2015, the Reno City Council directed its staff to explore the local code as it related to strip clubs and adult businesses, such as movie theaters and bookstores. But it wasn’t until the end of last year that the City Council began weighing in on changes to the code.
Sept. 13, 2017: The City Council voted 5-2 to amend three administrative codes to regulate the operations and security at strip clubs. But the most notable element of that decision was the council’s vote to amend the land development code, a separate process that involves the city’s Planning Commission. In effect, the council directed city staff to amend the code to require the four downtown strip clubs that do not conform with zoning code to move to industrial areas within five years.
The two dissenting votes came from Mayor Hillary Schieve and Councilwoman Neoma Jardon. Although they support some regulation, they were wary about forcing out existing businesses.
April 11, 2018: After the vote in September, Thierman sued the city on behalf of his client, who owns Fantasy Girls, Spice House and the Wild Orchid. In April, the council had a chance to reconsider some of the business restrictions that it voted for seven months earlier. But the council continued on the same course, voting to move forward with the code revisions.
There was a small shift — to focus on the business operating restrictions first, before focusing on the effort to move the strip clubs out of downtown. Prior to the meeting, city staff told the Reno Gazette-Journal that the city wanted to prioritize issues around signage and alcohol.
August 22, 2018: Once again, the City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the restrictions with some tweaks, but the council’s vote did not address the relocation issue.
All the decisions have been met with continued frustration from the strip clubs.
Thierman, who represents three of the four strip clubs downtown, told the council that some of the regulations, such as new surveillance rules, felt out of 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale.
He also described the measures as “draconian.”
Not all clubs were on the same page. A representative from the remaining downtown strip club, The Men’s Club, told the council that the business could support some of the proposed rules.
A two-track process: Nearly a year after the vote in September, city staff is undertaking several processes at once. The first is to work on ordinances that would tweak the city’s administrative business code to include proposed regulations around security and licensing.
In writing the draft ordinances, the city is required to do a business impact statement, which will incorporate comments from the public. The comment period for that document goes until Oct. 5.
The proposed rules:
- Create new licensing requirements for an “adult business.”
- Require contracted and full-time performers to have work cards.
- Enforce new video-monitoring requirements. The rules require that faces be unobstructed and that the city has access to the footage and the repair log.
- Increase indoor lighting, requiring illumination in all areas where customers roam.
- Requires the annual renewal of their licenses and policies for performer safety training.
- Prohibit performers under the age of 21 where alcohol is served.
- Ban private rooms for lap dances or viewing of performers.
At the same time, there is another process underway.
City staff is still looking at possible changes to Title 18, or the Land Development Code. That would allow them to enforce rules around signage and relocation. Instead of first going to the City Council, those changes must be seen by the city’s Planning Commission. According to city staff’s timeline, the commission could see those proposed changes by October or November.
The proposed rules:
- Change signage requirements to ban digital signs at improperly-zoned clubs.
- Ban alcohol within one year at clubs that are in improperly-zoned areas.
- Require strip clubs to relocate within five years if they are in improperly-zoned areas.
A controversial investigation: Looming in the background of the strip club debate is a secret investigation that City Attorney Karl Hall conducted into the strip clubs. The existence of the report was revealed during a public meeting last year by Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus. The full report, which was conducted by a Reno-based private investigative firm, was released by the city manager after a request from the Reno-Gazette Journal was denied by the city attorney.
The report, eventually obtained and reported on by the Reno-Gazette Journal, suggested that there was drug use, touching and fights at several of the clubs investigators surveilled.
After the undercover report was revealed, the Fantasy Girls strip club and more than 100 dancers filed a lawsuit against the city. The suit, filed in May, argued that the city had violated the dancers’ civil rights by targeting them with surveillance, the Reno-Gazette Journal reported.
Another vote at the end of the year? According to a timeline presented at the public workshop in mid-September, city staff hopes to bring the completed draft ordinances to the council by November or December. The council will then vote once more on whether to change the code.