Mandy Doster thinks of herself as open-minded, outspoken, and radically left wing.
“Lord knows, I’m about as liberal as you can get,” she said.
But when she learned that Jan DeGroote, owner of the Show World adult video store francise, had purchased the vacant auto garage across the street from her house—which is located in an industrial zone of Greece, NY near Rochester—and was planning on opening a new location there, she was radically opposed to the idea.
“We’ve spoken out against it at a number of venues,” she said. “My issue with it is being next to houses where children are getting on buses… I have no problem with what the man sells, it’s not illegal, but it’s not appropriate around children and he shouldn’t be in a residential area.”
So when mere days after DeGroote finalized his purchase of the property at 750 Lee Rd. with a $400,000 money transfer, according to county records, the municipal government abruptly amended their zoning ordinances to prevent adult use within 1,000 feet of any “dwelling unit” (as opposed to a residential zone), Doster was—despite the questionable nature of the town’s legal maneuvering—delighted.
“I understand that it’s not terribly fair, and I’m sorry that the town didn’t realize that we all lived here before now… And I feel bad, but if I were to open a store that could be controversial and I didn’t want controversy and all this great free publicity, I would have just checked with the town, and I’m sure they would have said ‘Heck no, don’t build a porn store because we’re going to come at you any way we can.’ And no, it’s not fair, but if he was in a section where there weren’t any families I would be fighting for him, because he has the right to do it, absolutely. But, there are just too many children around here.”
DeGroote appealed the zoning board’s decision but faced considerable opposition from the community. On March 15, 2004, a public hearing was held regarding the matter: “Eighteen residents spoke in opposition to DeGroote's request,” The Daily Record of Rochester reported. “Also, the board received letters in opposition from Eastman Kodak Co., Greece Central School District, area churches and various individuals and organizations.”
The appeal was denied, and a new one is currently in the appellate process.
“Mr. Degroote’s property met the original ordinance requirements,” said Michael Deal, an attorney on DeGroote’s legal team. “It was only after, we believe, the town became aware that an adult use had been planned for that location that the ordinance was amended.”
DeGroote also filed a federal First Amendment lawsuit against the town on the grounds that the new legislation doesn’t leave enough room in the town for adult uses.
“You can’t just ban adult uses from your town or city,” Deal said. “You have to allow them some area to locate, and we believe that this new amendment unconstitutionally infringes upon the avenues of communication that would have been available under the original ordinance.”
Degroote’s lead attorney in both cases is Paul Cambria Jr., whose other clients include Hustler’s publisher, Larry Flynt, and the Adult Freedom Foundation.
Anthony Sortino, the attorney representing the town of Greece, declined to comment because the litigation is pending.
Since DeGroote lives in Las Vegas and the company’s president, Dick Young, doesn’t make a habit of chatting about legal troubles with employees, Barry Ruliffson, a former engineer who works as a cashier in the downtown Rochester location of Show World, first found out about the controversy in Greece through an article in the newspaper.
“Jan’s the best boss I ever had,” he said. “I don’t like to see him treated this way.”
Ruliffson said the town of Greece probably assumed DeGroote would be easy to intimidate.
“But not Jan,” he said. “He’s old school.”
This isn’t the first time (this year) DeGroote has had trouble with a small town’s municipal government. The 89-year-old Cinema Art, an adult movie theater he owns in Troy, NY, was shut down after a police raid March 2.
“The sexual activity observed there by undercover officers was described as a free-for-all with both men and women partaking,” Albany newspaper The Times Union reported. “On some nights, they found between 40 and 60 people at the theater, police said. Thursday was slower, with only 14 people present.”
Though a porn theater may seem somewhat out of place in the heart of Troy’s quaint antique district, not all of its neighbors considered it the nuisance authorities have made it out to be.
“The customers there were very friendly,” said Stanley Hadsell, who has worked directly across the street in Market Block Books for the last two years. “They were never hanging-out out front or anything. I think most people didn’t really care, but I think there were a couple of people who did care, who had a big mouth or had the right ear.”
Hadsell is also suspicious about the raid’s timing.
“There are some rumors—that I think might be true—that the whole raid was orchestrated so that important people wouldn’t be arrested,” he said. “It was a very busy place, and the night they raided it there were only, what, six people that got arrested. They picked the quietest night of the week to arrest people. I’m suspicious of that.”
Then on April 14, about a month after the raid, the city unexpectedly removed the historic cinema’s marquee on the grounds that it was unsafe.
It took them nearly eight hours to remove this awning that they said was falling down,” said Hadsell. “It clearly wasn’t falling down because they couldn’t rip it down. They finally had to use acetylene torches to cut it down because it was so strong.”
Petro Ciupka, who works a few storefronts from the theater in the Arts Center of the Capital Region, said the city acted in an altogether different fashion when another local cinema was in a similar situation.
“There’s a theater here, The Proctor’s Theater, and pieces were falling [from the marquee],” Ciupka said. “But the city gave them time to straighten everything out, put scaffolding up and all that. But here they just went at it.”
The cinema’s once graceful, art-nouveu façade now brings to mind a statue with the nose knocked off: molded seashells and pastel paint clash with scar-like panels of exposed brick and plaster.
Hadsell said he met DeGroote in front of the theater the day the marquee was removed.
“I asked him if this was bugging him—he was really calm,” Hadsell said. “I told him it looked like harassment. He just nodded at me.”
Harassment or not, DeGroote plans to open a new Show World there in the near future.
While the proximity of a proposed adult business to homes is, in some circumstances, sufficient reason to prevent its opening, the six houses at the end of Lee Rd. (five across the street from DeGroote’s property and one next door) are in an unusual position.
“What you have to understand is that these houses are in an industrial zone,” Deal said. “We have every reason to believe that they may very well be non-conforming uses themselves.”
Because the houses existed prior to the zoning change that designated the area industrial, they can legally remain in place. But, they are not protected in the same way homes in a residential zone would be.
“It is mostly Kodak and mostly water company and stuff like that [in this area],” Doster said. “These houses, other than mine, the entire corner lot is up for sale for industrial purposes, and I imagine nobody would keep those houses if they bought that whole corner lot. Those are all rented properties. So, it is very industrial.”
And municipal governments’ decisions to limit where and how adult businesses can operate must be based on legitimate concerns.
“It’s pretty clear, under prevailing law, that municipalities can regulate adult uses because of a recognition… that certain adult uses may cause adverse secondary effects,” Deal said. “We don’t believe that was the case here.”
Instead, DeGroote and his attorneys say the town blocked the opening of the store solely because it would be an adult business—not because any specific, secondary adverse affects were anticipated.
“With all due respect [to the families on Lee Rd.], I’m not quite sure what their problem is, other than the fact that kids would be seeing the store,” Deal said. “You wouldn’t be able to see adult materials if you’re standing outside of the store.”
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