Strip club takes center stage, lawsuit threatened if denied
Large crowd forces move to larger quarters; recessed hearing to resume Tuesday, Jan. 4
Story and photo by Dennis Sharkey
A crowd of about 200 concerned Jefferson County residents filled the Oskaloosa Middle School Auditorium last week to express opposition to a proposed strip club near Meriden.
The Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Commission meeting was scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. last Tuesday, Dec. 21, in the upstairs courtroom in the courthouse. However, at the scheduled beginning time nearly 70 people were still outside the courtroom with no seats available.
Board Chairman Tim Bailey temporarily adjourned the meeting until 8 p.m. so that it could be moved to the school.
The meeting concluded about 10:30 p.m. but will resume with public comment next Tuesday, Jan. 4, at the school.
Planning and Zoning Director Eloise Tichenor began the hearing with a staff report that recommended denial of the special use permit required for the business to operate.
During her report Tichenor made some points that were not exactly clear at the time, but were later clarified by accusations made by those in favor of the club that would be known as Oasis Saloon.
Tichenor said that she has worked in the office for more than 17 years and in that time she has tried to be as fair as possible to all the applicants.
She said that her job is to look at the regulations and to know the process and to help any prospective business to understand those. There were 11 factors listed in the staff report for denial. She further stated that she has always tried to avoid any bias toward an applicant.
“I am one component of the 11 factors listed,” Tichenor said.
Tichenor also indicated that her office and staff members have had to spend a lot of time at work accommodating the applicant Zach Snyder and after work hours at home.
She said last week the night before the hearing a member of her office was contacted late at night at home by the applicant and his attorney and that her staff member was on the phone with them for several hours being questioned about the staff report.
Furthermore, Tichenor said neither she nor her employee know how they got the employee’s phone number and a copy of the staff report.
Protocol for the meeting was broken by the board after the staff report was completed. Bailey said those in favor of the applicant would speak first followed by those opposed.
However, that’s not what happened. Instead, County Prosecutor Caleb Stegall was allowed to address the board.
Stegall told the board that he was not there to speak as someone in opposition or to debate the merits of the project and that he was there only to give his opinion as the county’s top law enforcement officer. However, his comments appeared to fall into the opposition category.
Stegall’s comments were clearly spoken in opposition. He referenced a study conducted by Dr. Richard McCleary for Jackson County Missouri.
“Sexually-oriented businesses do in fact come with increased incidents of crime, decreased public safety and increased expenditures requirements from municipalities for increased policing and prosecution,” Stegall said. Stegall made a point to say that the study was scientific. But attorneys for Snyder contend that courts have debunked McCleary’s study.
Stegall’s brief speech ended with applause from the audience.
However, Stegall’s speech combined with the reaction from the audience seemed to irritate at least one member of Snyder’s legal team.
Instead of going to the podium with an olive branch, first amendment specialist and Florida attorney Daniel Aaronson started off his side’s testimony with fireworks.
Aaronson said he and Snyder’s other attorneys have reviewed the county’s zoning regulations and there is nothing in them that prohibits an adult business. Aaronson said a denial by the board would push the issue into a conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
“A lot of the rules and a lot of the procedures that you all normally deal with actually gets turned on its head,” Aaronson said. “Your code is unconstitutional as it applies to adult entertainment facilities.
“I’m not stating that as a threat I’m stating it as a fact,” he added.
Aaronson’s second assertion drew large laughter from the audience. Aaronson then addressed the crowd.
“They may laugh at me and they may think it is funny, but I speak the truth,” he said. “You asked for people to come up here to speak the truth and that’s what I’m doing.”
Aaronson went on to say that if denial is made, the county will spend thousands of dollars defending a lawsuit that will be filed by his client.
“They think that is in their best interest,” Aaronson said. “But will they think it’s in their best interest when there’s $200,000 down the line spent defending this.
“You’re walking into a lawsuit that does not need to be done,” Aaronson added. “That is in nobody’s best interest except for lawyers. Don’t make me money. Don’t make me get paid and do what is right.”
Snyder’s local attorney, John Bullock, from Lawrence, was a bit more diplomatic in his testimony and highlighted the points that Snyder made in his application.
Bullock said his client’s business meets all of the zoning requirements and that Snyder’s proposed adult business, Oasis Saloon, would have several safety measures in place to not only protect the public, but to keep children away.
Bullock said Snyder, who also runs an adult business in Douglas County called Paradise Saloon, operates his club on a membership basis with strict background checks.
“There are not people that can drop by on a whim and go into the club,” Bullock said. “If there’s an issue you will be denied your membership.”
One major concern of residents is the proposed club’s proximity to Jefferson West High School. Bullock said pictures were taken from the school in the direction of the club and that it is not visible from the school.
Other concerns center around traffic on K-4 Hwy. and the parking next to the club. Tichenor said in the staff report that the Kansas Department of Transportation did a field check and that the business complies with all setbacks and easements.
Bullock also addressed Stegall’s claim that more money will be spent by taxpayers on extra law enforcement for the club and that any business will have incidents happen.
“Where people are things happen,” he said.
Sheriff Jeff Herrig is on record saying that he does not know if or what an impact an adult business would have on his department because no such business exists in the county to compare it to.
A man who described himself as a business partner and friend of Snyder, Eric Hodges, also spoke and leveled some serious allegations against Tichenor and former County Economic Development Director Jim McGrath.
Hodges alleged that when the process began, he and Snyder both made visits to Tichenor’s office where he said they explained to her fully what kind of business they wanted to operate.
Hodges said that Tichenor not only explained the codes and zoning of the county but also pointed them toward the K-4 corridor and gave them McGrath’s phone number.
Furthermore, Hodges said Tichenor pointed out the property in question as an ideal location.
Hodges said weeks later he and Snyder along with Phillip Bradley, president of the Kansas Licensed Beverage Association, met with McGrath at Almost Home Cafe in Grantville to discuss their project.
“He was for us putting the business there,” Hodges said. “These are two officials from Jefferson County offices that have encouraged the ability to go forward with this business at this location.”
Hodges said McGrath told them that he would promote the idea to the Meriden City Council. Hodges also said it was pointed out that the city of Meriden had agreed before to annex the property in leu of city sewer service being installed for no cost to the business.
Bailey took exception to Hodges’ allegations and commission member Paul Johnson asked Hodges if he ever presented a proposed plan to McGrath. Hodges said no written communication was ever exchanged.
The Meriden City Council met last month and voted unanimously to deny the permit which came as a surprise to Hodges.
“It was supposed to be annexed,” Hodges said. “Why the change? I don’t know.”
A number of other business associates of Snyder also testified including the manager of the Paradise Saloon and a bartender. Tonganoxie businessman Billy Shoemaker said Snyder was a nice guy and that he wished everyone could get a chance to meet him.
But, the two most important people on the pro-club side, Snyder and property owner Holly Spiess, were not heard from, but both were in attendance and neither got up to speak.
Furthermore, phone calls by the Vindicator and the Independent were never returned.
The first of many to speak in opposition of the club was Meriden/Ozawkie Chamber of Commerce President Scott Stanley, who operates the shopping center about a mile away from the Oasis.
Stanley said the chamber voted unanimously to oppose the club and that it might cause families and other businesses to move elsewhere.
“In today’s fast world we have choices of where to raise our families, spend our hard earned money or where we open or run our business,” Stanley said.
Others opposed to the club went as far to say that it would attract sex offenders and that children at the school would be put in danger.
“It doesn’t protect the community or the people in it once those patrons leave,” Jefferson West Elementary teacher Lisa Farrant said about the club’s regulations on the inside.
Johnson asked Farrant if there had been any discussions among the USD 340 school board about the club.
USD 340 Vice President Frank Sayles said the board met earlier in the day and voted unanimously to oppose the club.
“Customers of a (sexually-oriented business) would be a danger to our children and our community,” Sayles said.
However, no public notice or notification was provided to the Vindicator about the meeting and protesting a petition would be considered by many to not be a reason for an emergency meeting. The public had been given notice about the hearing several weeks prior to last week. Kansas open meetings law requires school boards to give 24 hour notice of a meeting.
Due to the holiday break a reason why the public was not informed could not be obtained.
Local attorney David Leffingwell took the podium during the opposition period and said Jefferson County residents shouldn’t be intimidated by an attorney from Florida.
“In other words we can just all go home,” Leffingwell said about Aaronson’s assertion that the county’s zoning laws don’t pertain when one party raises a first amendment issue.
Leffingwell did caution the board though. He told them to be careful in their reasons for denying a permit because that could open the door for a legal challenge. He told the board to focus on the negative effects the business could have on the community.
Leffingwell also came armed with his own case law. Several court cases were submitted by Snyder’s attorney’s that support their argument. Leffingwell put a stack of pages about 1,500 in number on the table of case law to battle the club.
One resident also said he would pledge the first $1,000 for the county’s legal team.
Resident Dale White asked a question of Snyder and wondered why a person would go to so much trouble to open a business that is not wanted.
“If you were indeed encouraged by someone, somehow in the county to build this, then I apologize,” White said. “I think it should be very obvious that this type of business is not welcome in this area.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission can only vote to recommend approval or denial. County Commissioners must vote 3-0 in order for the application to be approved.
Commissioners met with Tichenor for about 20 minutes on Monday in closed session for attorney client privilege.
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