Arcadia officials have imposed a temporary moratorium on massage therapy licenses amid concerns that the upscale town is becoming an unwitting capital of the massage.
In the last three years, the San Gabriel Valley city has granted 700 such licenses. Last year, it gave out 175, and on a single day this year, Sept. 15, the city received 12 inquiries for applications for new massage therapy licenses.
Officials said that is too many for the city of 55,000 residents.
"We're a small town, we don't need that many," City Manager Don Penman said.
In May, after several complaints by residents, the Arcadia Police Department began unannounced inspections of massage businesses with the help of the Los Angeles County Unity Coalition, a group working to address human trafficking.
A second round of inspections was conducted in the last few months by the fire, police and building code departments. City officials found violations at 40 locations, including locked doors on massage rooms, incorrect wiring and no records of services given to customers who fled out the back door when officials arrived.
A detective also found a website that featured reviews of numerous massage businesses in Arcadia with references to sexual acts and names of masseuses, Police Chief Bob Sanderson said. Some locations had as many as 12 massage therapists, and other businesses operated from as many as three different sites.
Sanderson estimates that the majority of the 40 businesses that were cited were involved in prostitution and sexual-related activities.
Even though massage parlors are prohibited in Arcadia, they are allowed at businesses that offer massage as a secondary service, such as spas, acupuncturists or physical therapists. Sanderson said some such businesses turned massages into their primary service.
No one yet has been arrested on suspicion of prostitution and no criminal charges have been filed, he said.
Georgene Hawthorn, manager of Votre Salon on Baldwin Avenue, said she and the women she works with favor the moratorium.
"I'm all for it," she said. "We have so many here, it reminds me of a red-light district."
She said that there are as many as 29 massage businesses on Baldwin Avenue and that she could distinguish between those that are legitimate and those that involve prostitution.
"You go in there and there are no reception areas," she said. "All the doors are locked, which is illegal. And how the girls are. If you are a woman that goes in, they tell you there are no appointments. If a guy goes in, he gets an appointment."
Votre Salon has one registered masseuse, who was formerly a registered nurse, Hawthorn said.
The city has visited the salon and checked the masseuse's license at least three times in the last two years, including the most recent visit two months ago.
The city is considering tighter regulations, such as a conditional use permit process or an independent panel to test masseuses, Penman said. The moratorium allows existing businesses to renew their licenses but prohibits new ones from applying for one.