Prince George's, Md., Council Passes Restrictions on Adult Book, Video Shops

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Prince George's County Council overwhelmingly approved restrictions Wednesday on adult book and video stores in response to residents' complaints that the businesses attract crime and ruin the character of their neighborhoods.

The two bills passed by the council are the latest effort by Prince George's officials to clamp down on businesses that many residents say degrade the quality of life, such as liquor stores, strip clubs, pawnshops and check-cashing businesses.

The new rules would confine porn shops to areas zoned for industrial use, moving them out of commercial strip malls and mixed-use centers often located near residential areas, said council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), a leading proponent of the bills.

The measures would also restrict the shops' hours of operation and require that their owners obtain licenses from the county. Existing businesses would have until January 2011 to comply with the rules.

The measures would not limit what the shops can sell, Dernoga said, and therefore would not violate the First Amendment, as opponents of the measures charge.

"Community leaders have been urging the county to remove these blights from our residential neighborhoods," Dernoga said. "It's not, can you have these businesses? It's where you have them."

The bills were amended Wednesday to remove a $250 licensing fee and extend the time businesses have to comply. But it was evident during a public comments period that business owners were not satisfied with those changes.

Bruce C. Bereano, a prominent Annapolis lobbyist representing local adult store owners, said the requirements will put "these adult book stores and facilities out of business in Prince George's County, and that's very regrettable and very unconstitutional."

Several store owners denied that their businesses attract crime, and they said not all of the materials in their stores are pornographic. Bereano said the stores have "no history whatsoever . . . of any difficulties or problems" with police.

Proponents of the bills, several from the Maryland Coalition Against Pornography, said the businesses are immoral, attract drugs and prostitution, and cause onerous traffic.

One Beltsville resident, George Mazanderan, said that a store near his home attracts drug dealers and prostitutes and that he has found used condoms in his driveway.

"I am a victim of pornography," Mazanderan told the council.

Like many other localities across the country, Prince George's has run into legal challenges over past legislation that sought to restrict the pornography industry. However, the council's legal staff says Prince George's is on firm footing with the measures passed Wednesday, because they are based on a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding policies in Littleton, Colo., that restricted porn shops through zoning and licensing.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has not taken a position on the measures, and he plans to study them further before weighing in, said his spokesman, John Erzen. Johnson has 10 days to decide whether to sign the bills, but under the county's legislative rules, they will take effect even without his signature unless he chooses to veto. In the event of a veto, the council can vote to override, and both measures passed by veto-proof majorities.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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