Stranger Than Porn
Kennedale officials contend that sexually oriented businesses such as Dreamers are unwanted and morally repugnant. So who’s driving all those cars that keep the parking lot full?
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
of something tamer
on its front steps.
By JEFF PRINCE
The battle between Kennedale and a handful of sexually oriented businesses at the city’s gateway has ratcheted up a notch, from the merely bitter to the borderline absurd. Consider that Kennedale police have arrested clerks at Dreamers Video on obscenity charges for selling adult movies that are available to every home with cable television. “It was a crime to put my client in jail,” said attorney Leonard Schilling, representing one of the clerks.
And consider: Dreamers Video lawyers are using — some say abusing — freedom of information laws to try to circumvent a judge’s decision. “You don’t want people using the public information act to get around the rules of discovery,” Kennedale city attorney Wayne Olson said.
Oh, and consider: Kennedale officials are refusing to release records they agree are open to the public. “They sued the attorney general over that, and I’ve never seen that before,” Dreamers attorney Mike Ware said.
Former drug and porn addict Jim Norwood is now mayor, preacher, and spiritual ringleader in the city’s attempt to uproot the lucrative topless bars and adult video stores lining a stretch of Southeast Loop 820 that Kennedale has big plans for. He is disappointed the businesses aren’t snapping to attention, relinquishing their prime freeway frontage, and moving farther out of sight.
“I’m tired of the lawsuits and all the things that are going on pertaining to these businesses,” he said. “There aren’t any of them that stand by their word. That tells me a little about the character of the people involved in it.”
For years, the adult shops have stood as familiar landmarks to the hundreds of thousands of motorists who regularly pass by on Loop 820 near Business 287, cementing the city’s reputation as a sleazy little blue-collar suburb. Norwood’s campaign to crack down on adult businesses and encourage family values rang true to Kennedale voters, who gave him a landslide victory in the 2004 mayoral race. He quickly drew national headlines for photographing license plates of cars parked at adult businesses and then mailing the photos and religious postcards to the cars’ owners.
The city, like many other small suburbs, is trying to ensure long-term growth and prosperity by attracting new businesses to boost the tax base. City officials figure the ideal spot for commercial development is at the city’s northern entrance — near the Business 287 exit ramp, an area long dominated by strip joints and adult video stores. The city annexed 58 acres in 1999 that included the businesses and then tightened ordinances and approved police crackdowns. A morass of legal maneuvering followed.
Dreamers’ owners successfully sued the city over new zoning ordinances designed to force them to move, and U.S. District Judge Terry Means ordered Kennedale to pay the video store’s legal fees. Dreamers wanted more than $200,000; the judge allotted $146,245. To prove that more money should be awarded, Dreamers attorney Mike Ware sought a comparison — he wanted Kennedale to reveal how much taxpayer money it had spent on attorney fees. The judge didn’t compel Kennedale to show its hand, and so Ware attempted an end-around by filing a public information request with Kennedale for the same records. The city refused and appealed to the state attorney general.
City officials agree that the amount of money spent on city attorneys is public information but insist the amount shouldn’t be considered to determine how much Dreamers can claim for its own attorneys. Ware “wants to use that information to try to bolster what fees he charges,” Norwood said. “As far as I’m concerned, he ought to figure out what he charges.”
Ware said there is no excuse for hiding open records.
“The general public in Kennedale has a right to know how much of their tax money is going to attorneys to litigate this,” Ware said.
Olson pointed to a caveat in Texas’ public information act that says attorney fees are not open to scrutiny when litigation is under way.
“We agree that normally the amount the city pays in attorney fees in defending a lawsuit is open to the public,” Olson said. “There are rules of discovery; the judge ruled against them, they didn’t like that, they made a public information request, and that’s what we’re litigating now.”
The attorney general ruled that Kennedale should release the information. The city then filed suit in Travis County asking a district court to overrule the attorney general’s decision. That suit is pending. Kennedale is also trying to have Judge Means’ verdict reversed to avoid paying Dreamers attorneys.
“Once that issue is resolved by the court and we get a final ruling, we are happy to make public the amount of attorneys fees because it will no longer be in litigation,” Olson said.
Protracted legal battles are nothing new when it comes to cities fighting sexually oriented businesses. Such businesses are usually lucrative enough to pay for many months’ of attorney fees. Lawyer bills racked up on the cities’ side and paid with tax dollars, meanwhile, can test a community’s will.
Cities face difficulties in moving, much less ridding themselves of, adult businesses. The best way to gain a legal foothold is to prove the businesses are increasing crime and detrimentally affecting surrounding properties. Cities have successfully proven detriment when it comes to topless bars and peep shows. However, Dreamers is a take-out video store. No movies are shown on the premises. The building is well-lit. Employees include single moms and a college student. The parking lot is often full of cars. Customers arrive, pick movies, then leave.
Schilling is a former Fort Worth vice cop who has visited his share of sexually oriented businesses. He said he was surprised when he went to Dreamers to talk to his client and found the store more akin to a Blockbuster Video than a porn shop.
“You can see the very same stuff on DISH or on Charter Cable,” as well as in luxury hotels from coast to coast, he said.
Olson said those comparisons aren’t relevant. Watching movies in the privacy of homes or hotel rooms doesn’t typically affect surrounding properties.
“You don’t see the Hilton hotel advertising X-rated movies or having signs out front,” he said. “Dreamers is located by residential properties. From the studies we’ve done, it still appears that it affects surrounding property values. People don’t want to live by them, and businesses don’t want to be next to them either.”
Problems caused by Kennedale’s X-rated movie houses include discarded condoms and porn littering the neighborhood, prostitutes gathering around the businesses, and customers cruising through residential streets. Olson said Kennedale’s tighter regulations are designed to push the adult businesses closer to handpicked commercial areas “where their adverse effects won’t be so dominant on surrounding property.”
And, preferably for city leaders, farther away from a prime piece of real estate envisioned as the grand entranceway to a city desperately seeking rebirth.
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