Montgomery County sex-party host must role-play by the zoning rules

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

To understand how Paul Pickthorne got cross-wise with Montgomery County's land-use regulations, you'll need a glossary:

"R-60" is a zoning classification for subdivisions of single-family houses where commercial activity generally isn't permitted. The 6300 block of Tone Drive in Bethesda is such a place, a tidy street of mostly 1950s brick ranchers just across River Road from Walt Whitman High School.

"BDSM" is short for "bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism." Velvet whips, leather hoods, six-inch stiletto heels, that kind of thing. If you were into the BDSM scene and periodically threw BDSM parties in your home -- as Pickthorne, a burly, jovial Briton, does in the castlelike 3,600-square-foot McMansion he rents at 6304 Tone Dr. -- you'd attract quite a crowd.

"Section 59-C-1.31" is the zoning code provision you'd be violating by having said parties in an R-60 zone if the guests pay to get in, as they do (or used to) at Pickthorne's nocturnal get-togethers. His events draw dozens of people. The cost: $20 for a basic ticket, $50 for VIP treatment.

"Kinky people" is the accepted term for folks who derive erotic pleasure from BDSM. "An amazing cross-section of humanity," says Pickthorne's friend Susan Wright, founder of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. "Men, women, transgender, heterosexuals, gays, bisexuals. Every ethnicity. White-collar and blue-collar. It's really very, very diverse -- though we do have an unusually high percentage of lawyers. I don't know why."

Anyway, you can imagine what Pickthorne's non-kinky neighbors think of all this. Fed up, they convened a meeting in someone's living room last week, then fired off indignant e-mails to County Council member Roger Berliner (D), whose district includes their Merrimack Park subdivision.

"I share your sense of outrage that a sex club is operating in your lovely neighborhood," Berliner wrote back. "I want you to know that my office has been advised that our County has moved aggressively to put an end to this blight on your community."

The county moved, all right. Pickthorne received a written warning from a zoning inspector Monday. But hold on. Suppose Pickthorne stops charging admission, as he says he might? Suppose he complies with the inspector and holds all BDSM gatherings as strictly noncommercial functions in accordance with Section 59-C-1.31? What then?

"Well," Berliner says on the phone, hesitating. "Certainly one has to respect everyone's constitutional rights."

In other words, if no money changes hands, and the kinky people don't cause a noise or traffic nuisance, the First Amendment would ring clear: Party on!

Who goes there?

Knock on the front door of 6304 Tone Dr. If nobody answers right away, knock some more.

It's a hulking million-dollar stone edifice built in 2007, dwarfing the modest half-century-old houses lining the rest of the block. The door is rock-hard wood that hurts your knuckles. A Union Jack hangs from a pole on the balcony overhead, flapping in the winter breeze. There's a foot-square spy hatch in the middle of the arched door, protected by ornate wrought-iron bars.

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