Recent attempts by civic groups here to control the number and types of businesses in their communities, from adults bookstores to fast food restaurants, may lead to a practice city planners say is becoming increasingly popular across the country - use of zoning ordinances to regulate the kinds of stores that locate near residential areas.
Last spring, about 1,500 Georgetown residents and merchants signed protest petitions when an adult bookstore opened at 3255 M St. NW.
They feared that other adult bookstores, topless bars and adult movie houseswflock into the area. Many of them also believed that pimps and prostitutes would follow into the community.
Because of citizen protest, the city council appointed a committee to study the effect adult bookstores and movie, houses have on the residential areas in which they operate.
Soon after, responding to citizen complaints and council interest, the zoning commission issued an emergency 120-day order that not only limited occupancy permits for "sexually oriented" businesses, but also said such businesses could only locate in those areas with the approval - on a case-by-case basis - of the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Before the emergency order, such businesses could locate anywhere in areas other than purely residential that the code did not prohibit. There also was no provision specifically regulating the location of sexually oriented businesses. As a bookstore and novelty shop, the M Street adult bookstore came under a general zoning category that pertained to all bookstores.
The Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing July 28 in Room 11A of the District Building to consider making the temporary emergency order a part of the zoning code when the order expires Sept. 9.
The order to be considered at the hearing is based on a Detroit, Mich., ordinance that the Supreme Court upheld in a 5-4 decision in 1976, and differs from the temporary order in that it seeks to scatter sexually oriented businesses at least 200 feet from any residential district, 200 feet from a church or school and 200 feet from any other such businesses.
"We can't consider them (sexually oriented businesses) to be a positive influence in neighborhood commercial areas near residential areas," said Ben Gilbert, the city's planning director.
"At the same time, we also don't want to concentrate such businesses in the downtown area because we are trying to redevelop that section," he said.
"I don't think the city should be one in which visitors come to see the nation's capital. The White House and honkey-tonk strips - that's not the type of image we want to project," Gilbert said.
Gilbert said city planners also are not interested in creating what is commonly called a "battle zone," a concentrated area of sexually oriented businesses such as ones in Boston and several other cities where Gilbert said practically "anything goes."
Where to allow these businesses presents a dilemma to city officials.
"We care about all parts of our city, including downtown, but we cannot prohibit the businesses from operating," Gilbert said. "Our concern is that we develop regulations which don't violate first amendment rights."
"It's very difficult to make a case to outlaw these activities (of "porno" businesses) under recent Supreme Court rulings," Gilbert said. "We would prefer to use law enforcement agencies to deal with the problem, but they reported that they were unable to effectively deal withthe problem (of where businesses locate)"
Managers of several adult bookstores in the area around 14th and H Streets NW said the proposed 200-feet rule would not substantially affect their business.
"We don't want to be that close to churches or residences anyway, because that's not where the business is," said Jerry Alexander, manager of the Capital Bookstore. "We don't like to have competition from a place next door or from any others down the street."
Whenever possible, Gilbert said, his planning staff seeks to resolve community complaints about businesses through other regulatory agencies. But sometimes, he said, other agencies are helpless as well.
"The question is whether there is a practical way to regulate busineses to meet community concern," Gilbert said."Should it be handled through land use regulations or regulations of other agencies?"
At the next zoning commission meeting on July 14, commissioners will discuss proposal submitted by council member David A. Clarke (D-One) that calls for a case-by-case review of occupational permits for fast food restaurants in commercial areas serving residential areas.
Clarke said he seeks this zoning change to create a forum citizens in neighborhoods where fast food reataurants are proposed.
Under his proposal, the Board of Zoning Adjustment would be required to consider the presence of other fast food restaurants in an area where a new one is proposed, any problems with litter in the area, and any other problems to which a new fast restaurant would contribute.
The board would have the power, under Clarke's proposal, to condition its approval of the restaurant on litter or odor controls ordered by the board.
Clarke's proposal was sparked by citizen groups in the Adams-Morgan area who effectively opposed a fast food restaurant that was to open there.
Marion (Duke) Green had planned to open an Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips restaurant at 1805 Columbia Rd. N.W. He had chosen a former grocery store about 100 feet from the bustling corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW.
There are two other fast-food restaurants on the corner - a McDonald's hamburger shop and an Eddie Leonard's carryout. Another 200 feet south of the intersection, at 2452 18th St. NW, is a fish restaurant called the Seafood Barge.
Community opposition, spearheaded by eight community groups within two square miles of Green's proposed restaurant, centered on possible economic damage to the established fish restaurant and the argument that two fast food restaurants in the neighborhood was enough.
Gilbert said he has asked the Department of Environment Regulations to investigate litter and cleanliness problems of fast food restaurants to determine if the matter, in future complaints can be resolved through that department's regulations rather than zoning changes.