It took the Town a year to do it, but Greenburgh tonight finally approved landmark legislation to give its police the tools they need to close permanently all “adult” massage businesses in unincorporated Greenburgh that employ persons that are not licensed by the State of New York as massage therapists.
The law employs a novel three-pronged approach. First, the Town outlaws all “massage parlors,” which are defined as massage businesses that employ unlicensed personnel. Second, the Town requires all massage establishments to apply for a license, which will give police the opportunity to conduct background checks to determine whether the applicants have a history of hiring unlicensed massage workers. Third, once licensed, all massage establishments in Town must then obtain a special permit in order to comply with the Town’s zoning code.
By adopting this approach, not only will the Town not give licenses to any massage parlors, but if a massage parlor is found to be operating in the Town, the police will be able to obtain a court order shutting down the premises for good, either because it never had a license or, if it did have a license, to get a court order revoking it.
All massage businesses in Town will have to comply with the new law within four months.
The text of the law was written and submitted to the Town last December by ECC president Bob Bernstein, a lawyer, after Police Chief Chris McNerney told the Edgemont Community Council that Edgemont had become the “massage parlor capital of Westchester County” because of the many “adult” massage parlors that had opened up in empty storefronts in strip malls along Central Avenue in Edgemont – and because, after first promising to do so, Town Attorney Tim Lewis refused to write the law himself.
The purpose of the law is to target massage parlors in Greenburgh that advertise on the internet offering “adult entertainment.” These advertisements typically feature photographs of scantily clad young women with wording that strongly suggests that sexual services could be obtained at these businesses.
In addition, according to police, patrons of these businesses would often publish online reviews, describing the various sexual services available and the prices for which they were offered.
Without the law that Mr. Bernstein had drafted, police would conduct undercover raids, but would only be able to target the women who work in these businesses – and not the men who typically employed them – and charge the women not with prostitution, which is difficult and expensive to prove — but with offering massage services without a license, which is much easier to prove and is a Class E Felony in New York.
Because of the severity of the felony charge, the women arrested would typically plead to minor offenses and be back at work, if not where they were arrested, then at another storefront nearby or in a neighboring community.
Meanwhile, when these arrests would occur, the Town’s building department would inspect the premises and if a building code violation were found, the building department would shut the place down. But the businesses would be allowed to reopen as soon as the violations were corrected.
As a result, the police not only lacked the tools to close these businesses down for good, but their enforcement efforts often involved coordinating with state and federal law enforcement authorities and were quite costly to taxpayers.
That is all expected to end with passage tonight of the new law.
The legislation is considered a landmark because it is expected to serve as a model for all municipalities in New York to adopt.
The law still needs a few tweaks. The cost of obtaining the license from the Town is only $100, but the Town Board must still set a fee for the special permit. Under existing town legislation, obtaining a special permit can cost more than $2500, but the plan is to set a much lower fee so as not to unduly burden the Town’s massage businesses and make sure they comply.
The legislation was controversial right from the moment it was introduced. Indeed, the first time it was scheduled to be introduced, Town Clerk Judith Beville who, like the town attorney, was opposed to the legislation, engaged in a filibuster – she would not stop speaking –- and thereby stopped Town Supervisor Paul Feiner from introducing the legislation.
The following day, the ECC posted on its website two “grand opening” advertisements on adult entertainment websites trumpeting two new Edgemont “massage parlors.” The Town Board then quickly scheduled a special meeting to introduce the measure.
But introducing the measure prompted the town attorney to lobby heavily against the measure, claiming it was “pre-empted” by state law requiring that massage therapists themselves be licensed.
At one point, Mr. Lewis and his deputy, David Fried, got the Planning Board to send a letter to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asking him to issue an opinion that the law was pre-empted. Mr. Schneiderman’s office refused, however, claiming the Planning Board did not have legal standing to seek such an opinion.
Undeterred, Mr. Lewis then tried to enlist the New York State Assocaition of Towns, as well as trade associations representing massage therapists—all in an effort to derail the measure.
The Town’s Planning Board then drafted its own measure, but Mr. Bernstein and others said the Planning Board’s approach was illegal and unenforceable.
Meanwhile, town board members were publicly refusing to meet with Mr. Bernstein in an effort to try to break the impasse over the measure.
However, town board members Kevin Morgan and Ken Jones met in early May with Mr. Bernstein, Chief McNerney and ECC vice president Howard Hirsch, which led to Mr. Bernstein submitting a revised version of the portion of the law requiring that massage businesses obtain licenses.
Still needed, however, was a draft of revisions to the Town’s zoning code, which the Town Attorney’s office refused to write.
To remedy that problem, town councilman Francis Sheehan volunteered to draft the zoning code changes that were needed and then took overall responsibility at the Town Board for getting the legislation approved.
After tonight’s legislation was approved, Mr. Bernstein thanked Messrs. Sheehan, Morgan and Jones for their efforts in helping to enact legislation over the determined opposition of the town attorney and his staff.
“I also want to thank my colleagues on the Edgemont Community Council,” Mr. Bernstein said, “without whose constant support and willingness to go the extra mile, even with a town board that for the longest time, for reasons no one ever understood, seemed hostile to the very idea of trying to address not only a very serious quality of life problem in Edgemont — but a problem that put hundreds if not thousands of vulnerable young women, many of whom are recent immigrants who do not even speak English, at serious risk.”