Sometime soon, Nicole Cromwell will pay a visit to Planet Lockwood to take pictures and learn how the business operates.
As zoning coordinator for the City-County Planning Department, Cromwell and code enforcement staff will be in charge of enforcing new zoning regulations that more closely regulate sexually oriented businesses such as strip clubs and adult bookstores in the county outside city limits. Yellowstone County voters narrowly approved the regulations in Tuesday's primary election, with 13,806 in favor and 13,356 opposed. A related ordinance that would have outlawed the distribution of obscene materials was defeated, with 15,537 opposed and 12,224 in favor.
Dan Schwarz, Yellowstone County's chief deputy county attorney, said Planet Lockwood, a strip bar at 1127 N. Frontage Road, will be grandfathered in as an "existing nonconforming use" when the regulations go into effect. Any new sexually oriented business seeking to locate within the 4½-mile county zoning district that surrounds the city of Billings would have to comply with the regulations, he said.
But somebody seeking to skirt the regulations could simply develop a sexually oriented business in unzoned areas of the county, Schwarz said.
Cromwell said she has to document Planet Lockwood's operation in case someone ever files a complaint alleging that the bar doesn't comply with the new regulations or if Planet Lockwood significantly changes its operations. "In order to enforce the ordinance equitably, you have to document the existing conditions of any adult business located within the zoning jurisdiction," Cromwell said. If somebody filed a complaint alleging that Planet Lockwood was violating the new zoning regulations, the planning department could determine how the bar operated before the new regulations went into effect and whether there was any change, she said.
Schwarz said Planet Lockwood's exemption from the new regulations would cease if the business changed ownership.
As far as Cromwell can tell, this is the first time in Yellowstone County that zoning regulations have been used to regulate interior features of buildings. Traditionally, zoning regulations are used to regulate land use and to group similar types of businesses in the same area.
The new regulations impose a variety of restrictions. Performers in strip clubs will be required to remain at least 9 feet away from spectators. Video viewing booths in adult arcades won't be allowed to have doors, meaning that customers using them must remain visible to the store manager.
Cromwell said she probably won't do anything until after the county commissioners have had a chance to visit with their legal staff and discuss their approach to enforcing the regulations.
"I always let an election settle for a few days. The commissioner did say they want to discuss how they want to enforce the new regulations," she said.
Because the regulations make it harder for a new sexually oriented business to get started within the county zoning district, the voters have handed Planet Lockwood a monopoly within the county zoning area, Schwarz said.
The process for the new zoning regulations got started last January with a joint public hearing before the city zoning commission and the county zoning commission. The city zoning commission recommended that they be adopted, but the Billings City Council chose to table the new regulations until after the primary election. The council is scheduled to revisit the proposed regulations at its June 26 meeting.
Commissioner Jim Reno, who supported both proposed ordinances, said voters used discretion by rejecting one ordinance and approving the other.
"They may have made the best decision insofar as the ordinance that failed deals with morality and judgment calls," Reno said. "The zoning issue is more black and white and deals with measurable restrictions on business operations. That takes a lot of subjectivity out of it."
Precinct-by-precinct vote totals indicate the zoning regulations received the most support outside Billings, in areas such as Laurel, Shepherd and Huntley.
All five Laurel precincts voted for the zoning ordinance. The obscenity ordinance was supported by majorities in three of the five Laurel precincts. A strip club known as Shotgun Willie's has operated east of Laurel since 1988.
A majority of people who voted at Lockwood School, about a mile from Planet Lockwood, didn't see a need for the ordinances. Voters in Precinct 1 opposed the zoning ordinance by a 33-30 margin. In Precinct 6, the ordinance failed by a 683-566 margin.
The obscenity ordinance, which failed countywide, also failed in both precincts located at Lockwood School. Voters in Precinct 1 rejected the measure, 34-28, and voters in Precinct 6 rejected it by a 754-535 margin.
Precinct-by-precinct results are available on Yellowstone County's Web site at www.co.yellowstone.mt.us.