NORWALK, Conn. – In an odd twist of Norwalk politics, the application to put a BJ’s Wholesale Club on Main Avenue has resulted in a Norwalk councilwoman suggesting she might open a business that would showcase the Chippendales male exotic dancers.
Westport’s Alexander Gurevich reportedly threatened in September to put a strip club on the dirt wasteland eyed by BJ’s Wholesale Club when city and public opposition threatened to derail the project.
The threat raised a red flag, and the Common Council Ordinance Committee decided to consider rewriting – or at least eyeballing – Norwalk’s adult use ordinance, committee Chairwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D) said last week, in explaining why it was on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
The item had been put on the agenda in October, she said. “At this point there really doesn’t seem to be any reason to move it forward,” she said.
“This has been on the books for a while, but how does that roll over to prohibiting somebody from intellectually doing that?” Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said to Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, adding that he knew it was a Constitutional question.
The is a very interesting First Amendment case law, Coppola said, but the bottom line is zoning. “Generally the adult use is regulated to one district,” he said. “How does the ordinance apply?”
Hempstead said there is enforcement built into the ordinance, and then began telling the story of the Zebra Club.
The 1990’s nude dancing bar on Route 1 next to the Laurel Club and St. Philip’s Church got around efforts by then-Mayor Frank Esposito to shut it down by selling orange juice instead of liquor, according to Hempstead and the New York Times.
“I would be careful regarding the regulation of adult use,” Coppola said. “Municipalities have been in court over the years with these cases. Milford has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars regarding the creation of an ordinance or zoning regulation in their municipality.”
Then stepped in the ultimate expert on the case, Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large).
“I am quite familiar with the ordinance because I was chairman of the ordinance committee — we made this law 15 years ago,” Bonenfant said. “To be honest with you, the end of my story is: ‘Let it go.’ It’s working, these clubs are not coming into Norwalk and proliferating. Do you see these trash clubs coming into Norwalk? No. Leave it alone, it’s working. We made it that it was going to be no fun. I don’t even want to go into all of the details but we put things in there.”
Bonenfant told the story of crafting the ordinance.
“No one cared until that guy, he got caught having a naked photo shoot in the back yard of that place across the street there, and they really gave him a hard time,” he said. “We had Harry Rilling, the police chief, we had the deputy chief, we had everybody at the table for a year and nobody cared … We were crafting it and we were going around and around, and then when they were going to move to the corner of Silvermine there, across the street from the BJ’s site, that’s when people actually cared. When it was like ‘uh oh, my backyard,’ here we go. So then that kind of sped the process along. We worked on it. We put provisions in there. Like Mario said, don’t push your luck. We got things in there, the police can go in there four times a year.”
There’s more: they had been thinking of saying patrons could not get closer than three feet to the women but modified that out of concerns for women’s rights, he said.
“How are you going to hand her a $5 tip? (if you can’t get closer than three feet),” he asked. “We made it torso to torso, a three-foot buffer. And then if somebody said ‘This is my profession, this is what I want to do as my career.’ … If a girl wanted to stand next to you and make a couple of extra dollars by getting a Polaroid next to you, so we made an exception in there. That’s OK, it had to be in a well-lit area and you had to take that picture for a souvenir.”
Coppola said the ordinance was very well thought out.
At which point Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) said, “So I can open a strip bar, is what you’re saying.”
“Yeah, it’s just going to be no fun because the cops will go in there four times a year, and even more if there’s a complaint,” Bonenfant said.
“I’m not going to have girls,” she said.
“Do whatever you want,” Bonenfant said.