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August 20, 2000 04:47am
Strip clubs, residents square off; Neighbors claim Dallas ordinance as an ally
Source: Star-Telegram Dallas bureau
by: Jeff Prince

(DALLAS, TX) -- Crime in Bachman Lake's red-light district has dropped 18.8 percent after a city crackdown, says an assistant city manager.

Whoopee, say area residents.

"They're trying to put Band-Aids on a broken dam," said Jerry Blake, longtime owner of Bachman Place Apartments.

The once-classy neighborhood has faded under the glare of neon signs and sleazy squalor, activists say. Fourteen nude dance clubs do business in just a few blocks, and none conform to zoning or ordinances, say neighbors who want them out.

Club owners said they wonder what the fuss is about. The clubs have been there for years and are protected by First Amendment freedom of speech, they say. And they are in demand, otherwise patrons wouldn't pay $6 a beer and stuff so many dollar bills into G-strings that they start resembling grass skirts.

Besides, they ask, where would the clubs go? Few areas lay out the red carpet to strip clubs.

"Everybody gets mad if we talk about moving somewhere else," said Scott Burch, owner of several clubs along Northwest Highway, including Baby Dolls Saloon and The Fare West. "The reality of it is, our businesses have been there for more than 20 years. They are part of the landscape."

Not all the clubs are old- timers. Burch's legal battle with the city through the years has created uncertainty over who has the right to do what. Other clubs have moved in during the confusion and started their own legal maneuvers.

"If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and none of those nonconforming businesses would be there," Dallas City Councilwoman Donna Blumer said. "The legal hurdles we have had to jump have been tremendous, and we are still working our way through them but we are making progress. Most of the judges who rule on these cases have been very slow to come to decisions, and that complicates things." The city is facing more than 20 pending lawsuits from clubs in the Bachman area, she said.

Historically, nude dance clubs have found protection under the right to free expression. But the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year gave cities and states broader powers to restrict activities perceived to be harmful without having to show convincing evidence of harm.

City officials could run off the clubs if they were committed to the cause, said Linda Neel, president of the Bachman/Northwest Highway Association.

So, why don't they?

"We went to a town hall meeting and met with department heads from all of the city departments, and we asked them that same question," she said. "They can't answer. They say they are working on it and it takes time. It's been 12 years."

But an Aug. 11 memo from the Dallas city manager's office to the mayor and City Council touted the success of the Bachman Area Initiative, a crackdown by police, fire, health and code enforcement departments that has resulted in 233 bar inspections, hundreds of arrests and more than 1,200 citations since February.

Violent crime decreased 6.3 percent and nonviolent crime fell 22.2 percent compared to last year, the memo showed. The initiative will continue.

But activists don't want to hear statistics. They want the clubs gone.

The area's zoning is for community retail, which emphasizes "community." Nude dance clubs don't qualify without a special use permit.

Some clubs operate without licenses, city officials acknowledge. Yet, they remain because of injunctions against the city.

A 1997 city ordinance prohibits sexually oriented businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of a home, a school or another sexually oriented business. That alone, activists said, should push all of the clubs from the area.

But the ordinance makes it easier to block new clubs than to shut down old clubs, City Attorney Madeleine Johnson said.

She said she understands activists' frustration but asked for patience. The city will continue to fight nonconforming sexually oriented businesses and dance halls regardless of lawsuits, she said.

"This is not an office that's intimidated by anyone," Johnson said. "There are issues when clubs have been there for a long time. They are not going to go away overnight."

The haggling prompted Burch to offer the city a settlement in June. He owns four clubs in the Bachman area and about a dozen citywide. He offered to buy El Cisne, a deteriorating club that is among the most despised by Bachman activists, and tear it down. Chez Pussycat and Deja Vu would stop operating as sexually oriented businesses by the end of the year. Burch would also remove signs deemed offensive by some residents, add security guards and install landscaping that provides screening.

Neighbors say the settlement is too little, too late. Burch can clean up his own mess but he can't control every club owner in Bachman, Neel said.

"Why would we remotely want to agree with that when the city ordinances say you can't have any of them?" Neel asked.

Burch isn't fazed. He said his constitutional challenges have cost him millions -- about $100,000 a month in legal fees -- but they keep his doors open and the money coming in. He said his lawyers assure him they can win in court.

The finger-pointing activists are moralists trying to mold the world to fit their narrow view, he said.

Still, he's ready to be neighborly.

"We have said all along that any reasonable request that people make toward us, we'll comply with," he said. "If they make an argument we need to plant petunias, we'll do it. But we're not going to close. We're going to continue where we are forever, and we'll figure out a way to do it."

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