A federal judge is expected to decide in April whether a controversial establishment that features nude dancers can continue to operate in the city.
City officials have attempted to shut down Body Parts, 12403 E. Carson St., for several months. But owner Thomas Shelley obtained a court order in January allowing him to remain open pending a court decision. He argued that his business is constitutionally protected. U.S. District Judge Richard Gadbois heard arguments from both sides this week.
The controversy began in October when Shelley, a former soft-drink distributor, applied for permits to remodel a former auto parts store into a theater. He amended the store's outdoor sign from "Auto Parts" to "Body Parts." But the City Council declared a moratorium on all new adult businesses while the city amends its General Plan.
On Jan. 7, Shelley defied the moratorium and opened the theater, which has live stage shows featuring nude dancers. Five days later, sheriff's deputies shut him down for operating without a business license.
But Body Parts was closed only one day. Shelley immediately filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the moratorium violated his First Amendment rights. Gadbois agreed and decided that Body Parts could remain open pending this week's trial and his ruling.
The city contends that Body Parts is violating several city regulations, said Richard R. Terzian, attorney for Hawaiian Gardens. The city says the establishment does not have enough parking, landscaping or a proper masonry enclosure for trash dumpsters. Roger Jon Diamond, attorney for Body Parts, said Shelley will make the changes, which will cost $15,000 to $20,000, if he is allowed to stay.
The city is also attempting to show that Body Parts violates an ordinance prohibiting adult businesses within 500 feet of a church. Terzian said Body Parts is within 500 feet of a Korean church at 21732 Verne Ave.
Diamond disputed the city's measurements. He also argued that the ordinance wouldn't apply to Body Parts even if it were within 500 feet of the church. The city has such a ban against adult movie theaters, adult bookstores and massage parlors, but Body Parts is exempt because it is live theater, he said.
Shelley has accused the city of unfairly singling out his business for its adult nature and contended that the attempts to close it have been unconstitutional.
Terzian denied the charges. "It's like any other business. Whether it's auto parts or nude dancing, it has to comply with provisions of the law," he said.
Meanwhile, a group of local residents has picketed Body Parts almost nightly in an attempt to discourage customers. About 50 protesters showed up on a recent Saturday evening. Some said they believe the theater, which borders a commercial area to the south and residences to the north, will bring more crime and undermine property values.
Diamond said the city will benefit if Shelley is allowed to keep his business. "The majority of Hawaiian Gardens residents believe in freedom of choice for consenting adults, and I'm sure in a time of economic depression they want the buildings to be rented," he said.