Originally created 07/20/02

Adult bookstore opens; protest ordinance



An adult bookstore that has been prohibited from opening up shop on Gordon Highway unlocked its doors Friday night with little fanfare, despite a city ruling that effectively denied the business's legal opening.

In an act of civil disobedience, Augusta Video X-Mart General Manager Jimmy Cassandro defied an Augusta Commission denial of the store's zoning request to sell sexually oriented material from the building on Molly Pond Road. Store attorneys say their client's First Amendment right to free speech has been violated by the Augusta Commission's decision.

The only indication that the store was in business was a large white banner with red letters reading "Now Open" on the building's exterior. A brand-new American flag was flying from a pole in the parking lot.

"I bought the flag today - that's my pride and joy," Mr. Cassandro said, shortly after opening the store's doors.

Augusta commissioners had amended the city's adult-entertainment ordinance Thursday in an effort to prevent the adult book and video store from opening.

"The flag was my reaction to that ordinance they put out yesterday," Mr. Cassandro said Friday. "I want everyone to be reminded that this is the United States. That's the reason I love this country."

Although bookstore attorneys say the city's newly amended adult entertainment ordinance is much better than one currently being contested in federal court, Augusta Video X-Mart still plans to challenge the law, saying proper public notice of the changes never took place.

"There has to be public debate, just like with any ordinance," said Augusta Video attorney Gary Edinger. "There are things government is supposed to consider when adopting legislation, including the effect it would have on speech, so apparently they didn't consider anything."

The constitutionality of the city's old ordinance already is being challenged in U.S. District Court after the commission's denial of a special zoning exception for Augusta Video. The exception would have allowed the adult book and video store to locate in a small, white stucco building near Doug Barnard Parkway and Gordon Highway.

Shop employees have spent the past 15 days stocking the shelves and inventorying items, including adult magazines, videos, DVDs and novelties. The store also carries lingerie, sexually explicit gift cards and gag gifts.

New lettering on the glass door entrance warns customers of its content, saying "If adult oriented material offends you, please do not enter."

Mr. Cassandro said he had served four customers as of 10 p.m.

Under the city's amended ordinance, sexually oriented businesses - adult bookstores and erotic-dance establishments - no longer are required to secure a special zoning exception to locate in Augusta. Instead, they will be permitted to locate only in areas zoned for light or heavy industry.

The changes also prohibit sexually oriented businesses from opening in areas deemed to be in "gateway corridors."

A city Corridor/Gateway Action Plan, approved in 2000, designates prominent locations throughout the city, including the Gordon Highway intersection where the bookstore opened.

Augusta Video plans to file an amendment to its existing lawsuit in response to the city's new ordinance. Attorneys have said they will ask for another hearing on an emergency basis early next week.

"The old law was repealed entirely, but this new law is void, too," Mr. Edinger said. "The way a void law works, it has no effect."

City Attorney Jim Wall said he had not filed any additional information in federal court as of Friday afternoon and would not say whether he planned to next week.

"I'm not going to respond to questions about pending litigation," Mr. Wall said, but the city's amended ordinance likely will be entered into evidence in the federal case.

Bookstore officials are hoping the city's ordinance will be deemed illegal, allowing them to remain open at the south Augusta location and be grandfathered into any future ordinance amendments, Mr. Edinger said.

"No citizen has to obey a void law," he said.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.