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Sex shops infiltrate small towns
( 2003-12-05 01:43) (Agencies)

Until the 61-foot-tall sign appeared one morning along Interstate 70, no one from Abilene, Kan., knew that the former Stuckey's truck stop just outside of town had been remade into an "adult superstore" that sells X-rated videos, lingerie and sex toys.

"It was a sneaky deal," Karen McMillan, the county official in charge of zoning, says. "They came in in the middle of the night. We thought it was a boot outlet."

The store's opening Sept. 21 roiled this Old West cow town where President Eisenhower grew up and was laid to rest. But it may be its Midwest sensitivity to big government - evident in its lax zoning laws - that drew the store to Dickinson County.

Abilene and surrounding Dickinson County aren't the only rural communities upset over the growth of what is being called "freeway porn."

Similar stores have opened recently near Newton, Iowa, Buckhorn, Mo., and Sawyer, Mich. In Kansas, three such stores have opened on a 65-mile stretch of I-70 between Abilene and Wilson, to the west. Two of them opened since August.

Several of the stores are operated by Lion's Den Adult Superstores, a national chain based in Columbus, Ohio. Nine of its 29 stores have opened in the past two years. Eight are in or near towns of 16,000 or fewer residents. All of them are just off an interstate.

The rush to rural outlets has as much to do with zoning laws as anything else. Most small towns and counties do little more than segregate property into zones for residences, farms and businesses.

Larger cities tend to have more complex zoning regulations. They typically restrict adult businesses to back-corner industrial areas, the least desirable locations. Bigger cities usually have laws that specify hours of operation, restrict parking and regulate liquor licenses. As a result, businesses that trade in adult material or entertainment are setting up outside city limits, but still near lots of traffic.

"The cities have gone so crazy with zoning, it's difficult to find places to open stores," says Mark Kerns, a senior editor of Adult Video News. "Where else are they going to go but outside the city?"

Demand for pornography is as strong as ever. Last year, the porn industry produced 11,000 movie "titles" compared with fewer than 1,000 movies produced by Hollywood, Kerns says. There are 3,000 stores that exclusively sell adult videos along with 25,000 video stores that have "adults only" sections, he says.

About half of "freeway porn" stores are corporately owned. They are legally seeking to expand their legitimate business, says Kat Sunlove, an adult movie actress turned lobbyist.

Sunlove works for the Free Speech Center, a California advocacy group funded by 900 adult business owners and video makers. She sees the opening of rural sex stores as a good idea. "It's capitalism at its best," Sunlove says. "This is a transformed industry, and businesses are just following the market."

Opposition always fails

Lion's Den is among the largest chains, operating in 10 states.

In every town where the Lion's Den has opened, the new stores have faced opposition, including court challenges. None has succeeded.

"We've never had a store shut down by legal issues or challenges," says Sandi Summers, an executive in the corporation. "We're just as legal as any other business."

The Lion's Den, like other adult-oriented businesses, has successfully used the First Amendment to deflect opposition that is often, but not exclusively, organized by churches.

The federal courts have been inclined the past 40 years to protect adult-oriented businesses unless local communities can prove "harmful secondary effects" - increased crime, blight or diminished property values.

"Little communities really can't do anything," says Dan Panetti, a Dallas lawyer who has worked with several towns, including Abilene, to fight adult-oriented businesses.

"This is a huge issue locally. All you have to do is drive up and down the interstate to see what's going on," Panetti says. "I'm getting calls from cities in Oregon, Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, all over. They say, 'What can we do?' I have to say, 'Nothing. I hate to tell you but the fight you are about to get into will overwhelm all of your resources.' "

'Steaming mad'

Abilene, a town of 6,500 where the largest employer is the Russell Stover candy factory, is prepared to pay almost any price to rid itself of the store. A town meeting is tonight at the county fairgrounds to discuss options to force the store to close.

"We're all steaming mad," says Phil Cosby, a resident who is organizing opposition. "This county is not unwilling, nor afraid to oppose this dangerous, addictive and increasingly violent industry. ... This store slipped into this county under cover of secrecy and darkness and we are going to turn the light on and expose them."

The town is using every means it has to fight the store.

Cosby has organized 80 men into Project Daniel, an effort to picket the store around the clock for 100 days. They are taking down license plate numbers of truckers and notifying their employers.

Dickinson County commissioners are considering rewriting zoning law, which does little more than divide property into a few types of agricultural, commercial, industrial and residential zones. However, any changes would likely have to exempt - or "grandfather" in - existing businesses.

A panel of county judges, acting on a citizen petition, has ordered an investigation by a grand jury on state obscenity laws. Any charge would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and $2,500 in fines. County Sheriff Curt Bennett also has turned over evidence from his own criminal investigation to County Attorney Kristie Hildebrand. She is considering prosecution but is waiting for the grand jury process.

Even so, the efforts in Abilene may be more symbolic than successful in shutting down the video store.

"It's hard to get rid of cockroaches once you get them," says Maryam Kubasek of the National Coalition to Protect Children and Families.

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