Originally created 03/19/03

Adult businesses use loophole

It's open season for strip clubs.

So says James Lewis, the owner of a Damascus Road bar and the former owner of a Walton Way strip club who - for more than a month - has been showcasing nude dancing under the noses of city officials without their permission.

"God opened a window," Mr. Lewis said Tuesday of a January federal court ruling. That ruling permitted an adult bookstore to open its doors on Gordon Highway and left the city with an unenforceable adult entertainment ordinance.

An amended version of that ordinance, which aims to close existing loopholes, failed before Augusta commissioners Tuesday, leaving "the season" open for even more unregulated strip clubs for at least two more weeks.

Mr. Lewis and his attorney attended Tuesday's commission meeting to inform elected officials that he had started showcasing nude dancers at his Damascus Road club while the city's law was still fluid. City attorneys say Mr. Lewis still is in violation of city law and will be forced to close down.

"It sounded to me like he took full advantage of a situation," Commissioner Tommy Boyles said of Mr. Lewis.

Mr. Boyles was one of the five commissioners to vote in favor of enacting the updated adult entertainment laws, along with Ulmer Bridges, Steve Shepard, Andy Cheek and Bill Kuhlke. Commissioners Willie Mays and Lee Beard voted against the ordinance, and Commissioner Richard Colclough abstained. Commissioners Bobby Hankerson and Marion Williams were absent Tuesday.

"Not that I'm championing for adult entertainment, but we're at a point in this city where we're large enough that we're going to have these sorts of places here," Mr. Beard said before voting "no."

City attorneys have said the updated adult entertainment law meets the standards set forward by a U.S. District Court judge and would close an "open door" for such establishments in the city.

Chief Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. ruled in January that Augusta's adult entertainment laws - revised in June - are invalid because proper public notice was not provided before they were amended. The ruling allowed Augusta Video X-Mart, an adult bookstore on Gordon Highway, to open under a temporary injunction.

Since that ruling, city attorneys have been working to push through an updated ordinance that meets the burden of the judge's order - saying that until they do, X-Mart and any other adult entertainment establishment will be able to open without being subject to much-needed city oversight.

Strip club attorney Randolph Frails says he has been contacted by "a number of Augusta bar owners" interested in trying to showcase nude dancing under the existing loophole. He has represented Mr. Lewis - who has been denied several zoning requests to open strip clubs in south Augusta - for more than a year.

Since Mr. Lewis brought nude dancing to his Damascus Road club last month, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office has issued him a single licensing citation, which is slated to be tried in Magistrate Court this week.

City attorneys say they expect that citation to be enforced, in part because Augusta's zoning laws - unlike adult entertainment laws - have not been declared unfit.

Attorneys argue that Mr. Lewis is in violation of zoning ordinances that say adult entertainment establishments cannot open near city recreation facilities. Damascus Road is home to a city skateboard park and the municipal golf course.

Mr. Frails says his client expects to be absolved of any crime and grandfathered into compliance with adult entertainment laws after Augusta commissioners approve an updated ordinance.

"We're just riding the coattails of X-Mart's ruling," Mr. Frails said. "He's just trying to make a living."

Law enforcement officials and city attorneys argue, however, that it's a living that should be heavily regulated by government, saying its residual effects include an increase in property and sex crimes.

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


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