UNION, NJ — Although the township has been fighting to get rid of a strip club on Route 22 for 19 years, last week both the township and Union County Prosecutor’s Office lost another battle.
The legal argument continues to revolve around whether Hott 22 is violating state law or not by operating a sexually oriented business within 1,000 feet of a residential area. The club, adjacent to a bowling alley on Route 22, can be hard to notice due to its location and small size, and so far Hott 22 continues to win the majority of these legal battles and therefore continues to operate, with changes.
Last week the club won two more battles and the dancing goes on – for now. However, the fact they continue to win in court and dancers now wear thongs could be an indication the end of the war is near. Previously, the club was a full-nudity club.
In two separate rulings the state appeals court dismissed indictments saying the Prosecutor’s Office failed to prove that Daniel Russo, a former owner of the club, and Ibrahim Eldakroury, an employee of the business, were aware they were operating a sexually oriented club within 1,000 feet of a residential area.
At issue for the last 19 years is whether the club violated a New Jersey land use law which states no person can operate a sexually oriented business within 1,000 feet of places of public worship, schools, municipal or county operated playgrounds, hospitals or any area zoned for residential use.
However, the question of how that 1,000 feet should be measured has been at the center of the legal controversy.
The township has contended the club violated the restriction based on the “as-the-crow-flies measurement,” which is drawing a straight line from Hott 22 to existing homes up on a hill above the business.
Hott 22 argued the distance should actually be calculated by measuring the walking distance to these homes using public streets.
Township Attorney Daniel Antonelli, though, has maintained in the past that other criminal statutes, such as those prohibiting selling drugs within a 1,000 feet of a school, that a radius is the same thing as “as the crow flies.”
Hott 22 also argued over the years that they comply with the 1,000-foot buffer zone merely because the Garden State Parkway and Route 22 separate the business from nearby homes.
The state appeals court loss has cast a shadow not only on the township’s continued battle to see the club closed but also the Prosecutor’s Office’s decision to bring criminal charges against Russo and Eldakroury in the first place. However, these particular charges were levied while Ted Romankow was prosecutor.
Since then, Romankow was replaced in June 2013 and Gov. Chris Christie appointed Grace Park acting prosecutor.
The loss was yet another round of countless appeals, motions, and legal wrangling over the fact the township just does not want a strip club in Union. The club has been closed multiple times but always reopens under a different guise.
In May 2012, despite the legal battle waging in court, the club, adjacent to a bowling alley, reopened with dancers in thongs and no longer dancing nude. This changed the situation considerably.
John Williams, the attorney representing Russo and Eldakroury, said Friday in an interview with LocalSource there is close to a 20-year history of the township “trying to shutter this business.”
“This is constant abuse of process,” he explained, noting the township is spending taxpayer dollars fighting the establishment attempting to operate a legal business.
“Most of the lawsuits they outright lost or they had no effect,” Williams said, pointing out in the latest rulings handed down last week the township was ordered to pay legal costs for his clients, which will run between $160,000 to $180,000.
The attorney said township attorney Daniel Antonelli continues to file appeals even though he knows the township is going against Hott 22’s constitutional right to operate the business.
“They waste money needlessly, then they have to pay fee awards, like the one the appeals court just ordered,” the attorney said, pointing out Hott 22 has rights under the First Amendment.
He also took issue with the fact the township enacted an ordinance in 2006 that regulated sexually oriented businesses, which was repealed in 2009.
“Every time they lose a court battle, they go back and tinker with the local zoning ordinance,” Williams said.
“There has been a half-dozen changes in that ordinance,” the attorney noted, adding that Hott 22 is harassed by the local police and a detective often is stationed in the parking lot to monitor the business.
Township Administrator Ron Manzella, though, denied this and other statements Williams made.
“First of all, we have used very little taxpayer dollars for these lawsuits because we are a member of the Joint Insurance Fund with other nearby towns and they pay attorney fees,” he explained in an interview Friday.
Manzella did admit the township has a problem with “a place where young women are exploited.”
“The law’s the law,” the township administrator said, but added “at this point they are not operating the same business,” which changed things because the dancers now wear thongs.
“I think as a community we have to be vigilant in keeping nude bars out,” Manzella said, but added that since Hott 22 is no longer a sexually oriented business the township will wait to see what the Prosecutor’s Office intends to do.
On Tuesday, Mark Spivey, spokesperson for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, said the office would be reviewing the appeals court decision over the next few weeks and “weighing our various options.”