Politics & Government

Strip club zoning issue has planning group, advisory board butting heads

The Baby Dolls strip club in north Wichita is at the center of a zoning dispute.
The Baby Dolls strip club in north Wichita is at the center of a zoning dispute. The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita City Council will have to choose between competing recommendations from advisory boards when the owner of a property that houses a strip club seeks a permit to comply with city zoning on Tuesday.

Neighbors say the Baby Dolls club at 4900 N. Arkansas attracts an element they don’t like, and they want the city to shut it down.

But the city can’t do that. And that has created a split between the Planning Commission and the area’s District Advisory Board, which have taken opposite sides on the permit application.

The Wichita police vice unit and the code enforcement office have ruled that the entertainment provided at Baby Dolls – strippers who go down to the bikini level – doesn’t meet the city code’s definition of a sexually oriented business, said council member Janet Miller, who represents the area.

So legally, the gritty decades-old night spot is “grandfathered in,” because it was there before the city’s zoning code was passed and the property annexed to Wichita. That makes it a nonconforming but legal use, and it can keep operating for as long as its owners want, Miller said.

The only way to shut it down would be if the owner were to voluntarily close for two years and couldn’t prove he’d actively sought to rent the property to continue the current use. If the property owner is granted a conditional use permit, that restriction would no longer apply.

The building was built in 1951 and has been operated as a strip club since at least the 1960s under a variety of names, including Pump House and 49-a-Go-Go.

The building was built in 1951 and has been operating as a strip club since at least the 1960s under a variety of names, including 49-a-Go-Go.

Stephen Joseph, a lawyer representing property owner Homer Morgan, said Morgan owns about 30 similar business properties that are grandfathered in and is trying to bring them all into compliance with current city zoning, even though it will cost him tens of thousands of dollars to make required improvements in sewage disposal, parking and fencing.

“We’re going to make some fencing company rich,” he said.

Joseph said Morgan embarked on that course after he lost grandfather protection on a business on South Broadway. While Morgan owns the property, the business is owned and operated by a tenant, Joseph said.

The planning commission voted to deny the conditional use permit for Baby Dolls after hearing from several residents opposed to the club.

But the District Advisory Board for the area voted to approve it. Miller said the advisory board’s thinking was that if the city can’t shut Baby Dolls down, the conditions attached to the permit would at least bring some improvement to the situation.

If the permit were approved, Morgan would have to pave and stripe the parking lot and fence the business off from the adjacent residential street. Outdoor speakers, entertainment and flashing lights would be prohibited, Miller said.

Those people up there want to burn it to the ground.

Stephen Joseph, lawyer for property owner Homer Morgan

Joseph estimated Baby Dolls has zero chance of obtaining the conditional use permit. “Those people up there want to burn it to the ground,” he said.

The closest neighbors to the club complain that it’s noisy and attracts a sleazy element.

Marvin Hays, who circulated a petition opposing Baby Dolls’ request for a conditional use permit, said, “I’m probably the only person in the neighborhood who can’t hear them.” He’s hearing impaired.

I used to find condoms and needles and wet tissues from there.

Marvin Hays, neighbor of Baby Dolls club

Hays lives next door to the club and owns an adjacent property where he stores a collection of cars. His car lot is fenced off so club patrons can’t park there. When they could, “I used to find condoms and needles and wet tissues from there,” he said.

Children in the working-class neighborhood have to walk by the club to get to the school bus stop. When they get off the bus in the afternoon, “the girls are out front in their skimpies, taking breaks and milling around,” Hays said.

Maria Resa, who lives a couple of houses away, said she also thinks the club and its clientele are dangerous for the children. Three generations of her family live in the house.

She said it’s up to the city to decide what to do, but if she had her way, they’d “make it a grocery store instead of a strip club.”

A woman who said she is the club’s owner refused to be identified and quoted in this report.

The City Council has three choices: Let the planning commission decision stand and deny the conditional use permit, side with the District Advisory Board and approve the permit, or send it back to the planning commission for further review.

Because of the residents’ protest petition, it would take six of the seven council members’ votes to overturn the commission. A simple majority of four votes can reject it or send it back to the commission.

The City Council meeting begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 455 N. Main.

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