AYER — “That’s just not the community I want to live in,” said Ayer Selectman Cornelius “Connie” Sullivan.
And towards that end, the selectman says he’ll race to draft and air new zoning bylaws in time for spring Town Meeting on May 11 to prohibit any further so-called “adult” business uses in the downtown area.
Shocked to find that adult videos were legally being advertised and rented at a Park Street store, Sullivan has pledged an attack on any other like businesses from opening downtown. He has broadened his scope to include any additional tattoo parlors beyond the one in existence downtown.
“Certainly there are people out there who say they have the right to (these) adult uses, but we don’t need to flaunt it downtown,” said Sullivan.
The owners of the two businesses in Sullivan’s scopes, though grandfathered as valid uses under current zoning by-laws, are angered by the selectman’s public stance against their businesses.
Virgo Digital near the corner of Park and Main streets opened its doors last December following nearly two months of renovations. Fitchburg resident Paul Mitchell has worked in and around video stores for 14 years.
Before renting his space, Mitchell reviewed the town’s zoning bylaw with his landlord to see if his business would be permitted at 3 Park St. A majority of the videos in the store are titles one would typically find at the mainstream outlets. Following an initial inspection from Building Inspector Gabe Vellante, the store was deemed appropriate for the designated Downtown Business District.
Nearly two months later on Feb. 5, Vellante slapped a cease-and-desist order on a portion of the store’s business.
Cease and desist
An anonymous complaint was received that the sign above the front door advertised “Hollywood’s Latest Movies, Games and Adult Films.” Inside the store, behind an L-shaped partition and an unassuming louvered door, lies a side room whose entrance is visible to store clerks when behind the register and is marked for entry by those aged “18 and older” following an I.D. check. Behind the door, the shelves are stocked with dozens of adult videos. Customers are directed to place their side-room video selections into a black opaque shopping bag before leaving the room and heading to the clerk’s counter for a more covert checkout process. The store sells and rents videos only and no other adult merchandise.
In response to the cease-and-desist order, Mitchell covered the outdoor sign reference to adult film rentals and closed off the side room.
At issue was whether the displace space devoted to adult titles constituted a “substantial or significant portion” of its “stock in trade, rental or sale” of videos which would change the designation of the business from one being acceptable in the downtown district to one that would more appropriately belong in the town’s Adult Entertainment Overlay District off Barnum Road in Devens. An “adult video store” is one where such videos comprise a “substantial or significant portion” of a business.
Six weeks later, on March 19, the cease-and-desist order was lifted. Vellante had again visited the store, measured the shelf space in the side-room, and confirmed that the store was well within bounds for operating within its zoning district.
Mitchell says that business was bad enough before the cease-and-desist was issued. He’s upset the zoning flap cost him business.
“I don’t want any trouble,” said Mitchell, but he added, “you can’t keep everyone in a box. It’s 2009.”
Mitchell says when he worked at Conquest Video in Fitchburg, he learned of the market niche available for renting adult titles in Ayer because Ayer residents would frequent that store.
“I’m not running a porn shop,” explained Mitchell, adding a message for naysayers, “people in your town rent (adult videos) from me. That’s what they want.”
Tattoo parlors, too?
When interviewed about the lifting of the cease-and-desist order, Sullivan voiced his desire to revisit the zoning law not only with regard to video stores, but also for tattoo parlors, “it just doesn’t make a good statement for our town.”
Sullivan said just because tattoos aren’t illegal, it does not mean tattoo parlors should be located downtown. “Just because condoms are legal, do we hang them from awnings downtown?” he asked.
Rather, Sullivan says he’ll move quickly to draft zoning bylaw changes to tease out any adult uses from the Downtown Business District and relegate them to the Adult Entertainment Overlay District, which stretches on both sides of Barnum Road off the rotary and extends for some 2,000 feet down the road, and ends at the “Welcome to Devens” sign before the Massachusetts National Guard building. Sullivan says he’d believed that all adult uses were relegated to that zone when it was created several years ago.
Tattoos in the heart of Ayer
Sarah Beauvais is the owner of the Crimson Needle Tattoo Studio on Main Street in Ayer. When contacted for comment about this promised zoning initiative, Beauvais was confused about why the selectman would target tattoo parlors, too.
“Trying to pair the tattoo studio with the local adult store or a strip club simply is not fair. It’s really a comparison of apples and oranges,” she said.
Beauvais opened her store two years ago. She has a decade worth of experience in the tattoo industry and states she routinely passes her Ayer Board of Health inspections “with flying colors” and boasts of her “clean and positive environment.”
She wondered if Sullivan “just personally does not like tattoos” and added, “I wonder where it will stop.”
Beauvais worries about the “line” and where it rests with such a zoning challenge to tattoos. “If Mr. Sullivan tries to police people’s taste and morality, where does a person’s freedom to make their own choices come in?
“Will the bars have to close? How about cigarettes (and) the adult magazines behind the counter at Cumberland’s?” she asked.
Fellow tattoo artist John Hilsmeyer works for the Crimson Needle. He said, “We sell professional artwork that lasts a lifetime, not something you need to hide from people’s kids inside a black plastic bag.
“To suggest that a business like ours should be considered adult entertainment or belongs in a section of town zoned for things like adult novelty or video stores infuriates me beyond belief,” said Hilsmeyer.
He says the shop’s clients come from all over the state, eating afterwards at J.P. O’Hanlons or buying gourmet dog treats at the Pooch Barkery. He says the other downtown businesses understand that they feed one another.
“This is not Newbury Street”
Both Virgo Digital and Crimson Needle are tenants of landlord Philip Berry. Berry said he worked with each of these two start-up business and feels it’s unjust to cast them in a negative light.
“This is not Newbury Street. This is Ayer,” said Berry. “We’ve always been a Main Street of starter businesses.”
He notes that a former tenant, Pedal Power Bike & Ski Shop, grew initially on Park Street but eventually blossomed into a larger venture, now located on Great Road in Acton.
“We’re an incubator system for small businesses,” said Berry, “and the people of Ayer have to support the businesses or they’ll close and the stores will be empty.”
Sullivan isn’t buying it. “Is a tattoo parlor going to be in business forever? I don’t think so.”
Sullivan says now’s the time to act, to “stem the tide” against future similar uses.
The Town Meeting warrant closes April 21. Planning Board administrator Susan Sullivan said the matter is not presently before the Planning Board, which next meets April 2, but through the citizens petition process, the matter could be proposed to the selectmen and Planning Boards for discussion and possibly endorsements before putting the matter to Town Meeting.