'Protected form of speech' City says it has little wiggle room when it comes to proposed strip club

Matt Algarin
The site of the former Pottery World on Airport Road could be the future home of an adult entertainment club based on discussions that have taken place at City Hall.

While there has been plenty of chatter at City Hall and on the streets of Destin about the proposed strip club on Airport Road, parties involved with the project have been tight-lipped.

Atlanta-based attorney Cary Wiggins, who is part of the group behind "The Runway" project, told The Log Thursday that the project’s "partners" have advised them not to comment in the press.

During Monday night's City Council meeting, Land Use Attorney Scott Shirley, who was part of the First Amendment lawsuit with strip club developers in 2009, brought city leaders up to speed with how the city got to where it is today, and where they would be going moving forward as it relates to what would become Destin’s first strip club.

"There have been a lot of questions about this," Shirley told the council members. "As you know, adult businesses involve a protective form of communication. Adult entertainment, unless it's deemed to be obscene, is a protected form of speech."

How they got here

Shirley said the city of Destin had ordinances on its books to deal with "sexually oriented businesses" in the past, but they didn't address "secondary adverse affects," such as increased crime, drug use or prostitution. He said in order to regulate these adverse affects, a local government had to produce a study that showed the adverse affects occurred because of the operation of an adult business.

Looking at the city's adult business ordinance, Shirley said in 2009 the city "undertook legislation" in response to the application by the Oasis, which wanted to offer topless dancing, to regulate the locations a strip club could open.

"You didn't have much to begin with and you adopted an extensive set of comprehensive regulations as the result of the legislation in 2009," he said.

The city settled the lawsuit in 2010 after more than a year of mediation. At the time, the agreement was approved 5-2, with Councilmen Jim Bagby and Dewey Destin voting against it.

“First of all, when they brought us in to the executive session, that was the first time I’d seen the agreement,” Bagby told The Log in February 2010. “Greg (City Manager Greg Kisela) had briefed me earlier in the day, but I don’t like making big decisions like that with only about 10 minutes to read it.”

It's been said on multiple occasions that the old Oasis on Mountain Drive (currently Lucky's Rotten Apple) would have been better suited to topless dancing, but it wouldn't have been allowed under the city's codes. The city's regulations have always restricted "sexually oriented businesses" to the Industrial Zoning district, Shirley said.

Calling it "controversial," Shirley said the city's decision to allow alcohol sales in the industrial area, which is not allowed under current codes, was something the city was "uncomfortable" with at the time.

"Agree with it or disagree with it, the city council deemed it appropriate..." he said. "Nobody was thrilled with it, but it was the best course of action when the agreement was pursued."

As the city manager at the time, Kisela was quoted as saying “In light of the potential adverse consequences of an unsuccessful litigation, we are comfortable that we got more than we gave."

Where they are now

Developers with Red Brick Construction LLC and Trident Operations LLC have submitted their plans for the proposed 5,550-square foot gentleman's club that would open up at 908 Airport Road to city planners.

As the city moves forward, Shirley said the settlement agreement is in effect and it's binding by the court of law.

"I intend to make sure this agreement is applied as written..." he said. "That's what I intend to do and that would be my recommendation for the city council."

Councilman Tuffy Dixon has questions about whether or not Red Brick Construction is allowed to open the business under the settlement agreement, due to the fact that it was an agreement with the city of Destin and Trident Operations.

"I'd like to see this in writing somehow," he said. "We need this information as soon as possible."

Dixon said he doesn't want to see the city "expedite" the permitting process and find out that Red Brick didn't have the ability to open the club legally.

"That is a perfectly valid concern," Shirley said, noting that a letter has been sent to the applicants requesting proof that they are the same entity that sought to open a club in the late 2000s.

As residents of Kell-Aire Gardens, the residential neighborhood across from the proposed site, Councilmen Larry Williges and Jim Foreman voiced their frustration about potentially having a strip club as a neighbor.

"I understand that the settlement agreement rules," Foreman said. "What boggles my mind is that you can call this industrial."

"I just don't know how that ever got in there," Williges echoed.

According to Shirley, it's not uncommon for local municipalities and governments to restrict sexually oriented business to the industrial zoning areas.

During Monday's meeting, local attorney Dana Matthew, who is listed in the application file, was in attendance but did not speak. He did not return a call from The Log seeking comment. Local boat captain Casey Godwin is also listed on the documents and didn't return multiple calls for comment.

As of Friday, the city wasn't actively reviewing the application. Lighting plans and documentation that Red Brick Construction could apply to open a club under the agreement are holding up the review.

While there are still questions that city leaders would like to see answered, there is not much wiggle room based on the settlement agreement.

"This subject is no more palatable than it was seven years ago," Mayor Sam Seevers told her colleagues. "It didn't seem like either way we went was a good way, it was just a way."