Gwinnett County leaders aren’t sure how many stores sell adult movies and sexual implements in the county. But they know they want them to move.
Last week, the county passed an ordinance that defines for the first time sexual devices and sex paraphernalia stores, restricts new stores to designated industrial zones and requires existing stores to move into industrial areas, but expands the square footage that can be devoted to sexually oriented material.
The changes in the county’s adult ordinance were precipitated by the opening of a new store, Tokyo Valentino, near Gwinnett Place Mall. The store originally opened as a smoke shop, also selling lingerie and other items. But the owners later added adult media and sexual implements.
That prompted the county to declare a moratorium on adult businesses until it tightened its regulations, which included restricting where they could be located. The owners of Tokyo Valentino sued in order to open despite the moratorium, with the owners saying the opening should have been legal under the Gwinnett ordinance that existed at the time. The store now has temporary permission from the court to stay open through November.
Their attorney, Cary Wiggins, said in the suit that the county’s arbitrary enforcement of adult codes are a “thinly-veiled effort to thwart or eliminate a business that purveys erotic media and sells Sexual Devices in the County.”
They also contend that the courts should decide whether the county can force businesses to move from the areas the stores are currently located in into industrial zones.
Before Tokyo Valentino’s opening, the county’s ordinance had last been updated in 2001.
While clubs with dancers or stores that sell magazines or DVDs have First Amendment protections that help them stay open when governments want them to close, there are exceptions to the First Amendment powers. Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, said more and more governments are using so-called adverse secondary effects to rezone adult stores into other areas.
The idea is that they are zoning to keep crime, prostitution and drugs — which some studies have tied to adult entertainment — away from as many populated areas as possible, Paulson said.
That’s the tactic Gwinnett is using, and the county hired a well-known Chattanooga lawyer, Scott Bergthold, to rewrite its laws.
Joe Allen, director of the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District, likened Tokyo Valentino to the pawn shops and pool halls he is also trying to keep out of the area. Already, he said, potential tenants who are looking at vacant retail space near the store have decided not to open nearby.
“It’s not a positive, when we’re trying to change the perception of an area,” Allen said. “It reinforces the negative perception of the area we’re trying to combat.”
Wiggins said in the suit that the county did not have any evidence that a store that only sells a small amount of sexually explicit media, or devices, causes “a decrease in property values, an increase in criminal activity, or an acceleration in urban blight” when it passed the moratorium or the new law. Paulson questioned whether selling sex toys brings drug use and prostitution.
“With Fifty Shades of Grey, you see a lot of retail establishments in the suburbs that cater to women and men, boutiques with adult content in them in the middle of shopping plazas,” Paulson said. “They don’t really draw crime.”
Paulson also said he would be surprised if the secondary effect doctrine allowed the county to require existing stores to move. Gwinnett spokesman Joe Sorenson said all adult businesses will be required to apply for a new business license. They will either have to move, or ask for the buildings they are in to be rezoned for industrial uses.
Sorenson said the county does not have a list of the names or locations of licensed adult businesses, and does not know how many there are.
“I don’t think it will be too hard to find folks,” he said.
Bryan Lackey, the county planning director, said the change in the law came about because of Tokyo Valentino, but did not elaborate on what county leaders hoped to quell by enacting the new law.
Store owner Michael Morrison said he adopted Tokyo Valentino as the name of the store because it was his childhood nickname — he had a lot of Japanese friends and was considered a ladies’ man, he said.
Morrison decided to open the store in Gwinnett after researching where people were searching for adult retail and entertainment in Google. Morrison, who owned the Inserection chain before selling it in 2008, plans to open 10 more stores in the metro area. He also has stores in Brookhaven, on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta and in Miami.
“People seem to like what we’re doing,” he said. “The brand is rakish and kind of fun.”
The relationship between Gwinnett and the retailer hasn’t been “overly vehement,” Morrison said. But the lawsuit said the county “threatened to revoke its business license.”
Wiggins said he was willing to compromise on whether the store should have a less garish shade of pink or remove the large “lubes” sign from its window. But he thought it was “perverse” that the county would make laws without trying to talk to the businesses it was regulating.
“Gwinnett’s looking to pick a fight, and I’m sure they’ll get one,” he said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.