4 min

City hall picks on sex shops

Businesses asked to pay cost of city's over-regulation

Credit: Robin Perelle

First stringent zoning regulations, now this. On Oct 10, city council more than doubled its licence fee for sex shops in Vancouver, leaving shop owners like Lauren Elchuk shaking his head.

It’s another clear case of city hall making it hard for sex shops to operate in Vancouver, Elchuk says.

It’s not the first time city hall has made it difficult for Elchuk, who co-owns several sex video and supply stores in the Lower Mainland, to operate. Earlier this year, Vancouver inspectors ordered him to remove all the sex toys from his Hastings video store because, they said, he wasn’t licensed to sell them. At the time, Elchuk was stunned.

“It makes no sense,” he told Xtra West in April. “We’ve got videos here. Why on earth can we not have toys? The toys aren’t hurting anybody.”

Six months later, Elchuk is no longer surprised by city hall’s more than 100 percent licence fee increase. He still keeps a map in his office detailing all the neighbourhoods closed to stores like his. Sex shops are only permitted in a few areas of Vancouver, such as Granville St, Davie and Broadway-and even then, many conditions apply.

In addition to laying out strict window display guidelines, Vancouver’s “adult retail store” regulations say sex shops must stay at least 305 metres away from all elementary and secondary schools, daycares, playgrounds and community centres. And they can’t get too close to each other, either.

Council should stick to public health and safety issues and leave sex toys alone, says Janna Sylvest, president of Womyns’Ware, the well-known women’s sexuality shop on Commercial Dr.

Though Womyns’Ware managed to escape council’s “adult retail store” designation, Sylvest says she is philosophically opposed to city hall’s numerous sex shop restrictions. “The city is attempting to use its legislative power to address morality,” she says.

City hall doesn’t like stores that sell sexual products, Sylvest says, so they set up higher fees, strict regulations and an avenue for citizens to complain if those regulations are not met.

Maybe tomorrow, they’ll decide window displays of same-sex couples are obscene, too, she adds.

“I think the city should stick to what it is constitutionally empowered to do,” Sylvest, who is also a lawyer, continues. City hall should focus on public safety issues such as fire exits and accessible washrooms-not what it thinks is, or isn’t, immoral.

But Vancouver’s chief licence inspector says the new fee increase is about money not morality. Paul Teichroeb says he urged council to more than double the sex shops’ licence fee in order to recover their inspection costs. (Council complied and raised the fee from $116 per year to $245.)

Sex shops require a lot of costly monitoring, Teichroeb explains, pointing to the city’s need to check up on private viewing booths and window displays to make sure they comply with all the rules.

That’s the problem right there, Elchuk retorts: all those rules. “There’s no question” about it, he says, Vancouver has too many restrictions. City hall is going to charge the shops extra to pay for over-regulation and close monitoring.

Sylvest agrees. Rather than charging sex shops more money to recover the costs of inspections, city hall should stop over-regulating the industry and eliminate the need for all those inspections in the first place, she says.

Teichroeb says the sex shop fee increase is just one part of council’s annual review of its business licence fees.

But council stuck to small increases for most of its 2003 business licence fees, raising them just two-to-seven percent to keep up with inflation. Only “adult retail stores” and banks saw significant increases of more than 100 percent. (Banks took the biggest hit of all, with a 1000 percent increase to keep up, council says, with what other municipalities in the Lower Mainland are charging their financial institutions.)

Teichroeb denies that the sex shop increase is just another attempt to push the industry out of business. It’s just another $130 a year, he says. “I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact.”

Elchuk remains suspicious. “It certainly won’t break the bank [this time],” he agrees. “But where does it end?”

Hopefully with Vancouver’s upcoming civic election, Sylvest says. She’s crossing her fingers for a new set of decision-makers on Nov 16-people who will focus on important issues, such as affordable housing and pollution, rather than morality issues, she says.

Tim Stevenson, the gay United Church minister running for council under the COPE banner, says he’s the man for the job. He thinks the sex shop fee increase is inappropriate-and blames council’s “puritanical” streak. “They’ve decided that they have the right to decide on our morality,” he says.

But Vancouver’s sex shop owners should not be forced to pay for other people’s unfounded, morality-based complaints, Stevenson continues.

If Stevenson gets elected, he says he’ll work hard to keep his personal preferences out of Vancouver’s bylaws. “I have no right to say, ‘I think that’s bad for you,'” he explains.

Brent Bazinet, one of three gay candidates on the vcaTEAM slate, says he thinks the increase is just a thinly disguised penalty for an industry city hall finds morally objectionable. And that’s inappropriate, he says, adding that city hall’s “paternalistic attitude”-and its sex store restrictions-have got to go.

His TEAMmate, Barney Hickey, enthusiastically concurs. “The current city council has been given carte blanche to enforce morals in this city and that’s wrong,” he says, promising to cut some of the sex shop restrictions if he gets elected.

Duncan Wilson, the NPA’s gay council candidate, agrees that city hall seems to be basing its sex shop fee increase on morality, which he finds problematic. But he would like to take a closer look at council’s decision, and its sex shop bylaws, before saying any more.

Teichroeb says it’s unlikely the new councillors will be able to change next year’s business fees because the bills are already in the mail. But they could review the issue for 2004.

Vancouver’s civic election is this Nov 16. People can register to vote at the polls.