WELLS, Maine — A proposed “adult novelty shop” on Route 1 sparked outcry from residents and business owners and led town officials to enact an emergency ordinance defining “adult business establishments” and where they can be located within the town.
Town Manager Jonathan Carter said the town received a new business license application for a retail store selling “toys and novelty items” and “adult items” at 694 Post Road, or Route 1, filed on April 3. The business owner would lease the space, Carter said, which had over the years housed a paint store, pet food store, and a consignment shop.
Carter said the change of use “rang some bells” for town officials, and while the town has an obscenity ordinance in place that prohibits “any commercial enterprise from presenting or engaging in any obscene exhibitions for profit,” it does not cover retail sales. That area of Route 1 is located in the town’s General Business District.
“We worked with our Comprehensive Plan of 2005 and looked at what the values and visions of this community were in 2005 and going forward. We’re family-friendly. We are looking for businesses that are more towards the tourist, family-oriented side,” he said. “We have been able to do that, I think, in this community. We’ve been successful in having a great school system, having businesses that contribute to our community. We understand that and want to keep that.”
Officials created an ordinance amendment that defines an “adult business establishment” and permits them only within the “Light Industrial District.” The emergency ordinance took effect with the board’s approval Tuesday and will expire in 61 days, at which time Wells voters will see a question on the June 11 town ballot to formally enact the ordinance.
“The pathway that we have selected to go forward tonight is to create an emergency ordinance that creates a definition for adult business establishments and the criteria which that definition stands for. It gives an emergency basis so nothing can be done during that emergency time frame. It also provides for a ballot question in June that is retroactive back to April 8,” Carter said.
Under the ordinance, an adult business establishment is defined as: “Any retail business, including but not limited to any bookstore, newsstand, novelty store, night club, bar, restaurant, cabaret, amusement arcade or theater which keeps for public patronage or permits or allows the operation of selling, renting, leasing, exhibiting, displaying or otherwise dealing in materials or devices of any kind which depict or describe or involve specified sexual activities.”
The Light Industrial Zone includes the Wells Industrial Park on Spencer Drive and the Willie Hill Road area where the town’s transfer station is located.
Carter said the town did not act on the business permit application and with the approval of the emergency ordinance Tuesday “that segment of that business that is driven to this adult establishment activity would not be permitted.” If the applicant wishes to utilize the space in another way, the application would have to be amended and would be “reviewed on that basis,” he said.
According to a Facebook page for the business, The Backdoor, LLC, the business is described as “southern Maine’s hottest new adult novelty shop. Offering the industries most sought after products; sex toys, adult party supplies, local art and elite head glass.”
More than 30 community members attended Tuesday’s special board meeting, many raising concerns of safety, increased crime, and diminishing property values that they believe could come from having an adult business in town. The Route 1 area where this business was proposed includes the Wells Highlands neighborhood, an ice cream shop, a restaurant, campgrounds, a hair salon and retail businesses.
“We don’t want an adult store in our town. We certainly don’t want it next to our family friendly salon,” said Josee Lawrence, owner of Bella Tress Hair Salon. “This location would be detrimental to our business and all surrounding businesses and residential neighborhoods.”
Francine Tanguay has operated Annie’s Book Stop on Route 1 for 34 years and called Wells “a family-oriented town.”
“The people who come here and bring their children are looking for safe and family-oriented places to be. I see no reason for us to soil ourselves with this type of business,” she said. “I do not relish the fact that these businesses may move in right next door to me and I wonder how many people are going to be able to bring their children to our store. We’ve been here for a reason, because people and families come. Please do the right thing and stop this from happening.”
Emily Gallant, who co-owns The Scoop Deck, said this will be their 37th year in business and they often hear from customers who have been visiting Wells since they were children and now bring their own children and grandchildren.
“I think Wells, as a whole, we struggle a little with our character and what quaintness we still have I would really like us to keep,” she said. “Right now we have a chance to say what is our future character, what do we want it to look like…I think that we need to think right now about doing the right thing and choosing what we want the character and future of Wells to be.”
While some urged the board to completely ban adult business establishments in Wells, Town Attorney Durward Parkinson said it’s a constitutional issue.
“Our reading is that town’s can’t totally outlaw this type of activity, it can regulate it through licensing, through limiting zones…Our goal is to position the town as best we can legally in the event that there was a legal challenge,” he said. “The concept of what is pornographic and what is not, that is considered under case law to be subject to the first amendment. This would fall as a first amendment right to free expression.”
The town charter, Parkinson said, allows the town to enact emergency ordinances and “this in our opinion does fall into that category.”
Residents asked whether the town could ban adult business establishments by citing safety concerns, and the negative impact such an establishment could have on their community. Parkinson said that could be possible, “if you could back it up.”
With the emergency ordinance enacted, and going before voters in June, Carter said the town can “work on other solutions to this.”
When asked if that meant working statistics and safety concerns into a ban, Carter said, “I don’t know, but what I do care about is getting something on the books right now and giving us some breathing room” so that the town might be able to work to “come up with something different” for the November ballot.
Chairman Karl Ekstedt thanked the community members for turning out and said, “Everyone hears what you are saying.”
“We basically have your back. We live in this town, we represent you,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s the taxpayers and the voters that will make the decision as to what we’re going to do next.”
Attempts to reach The Back Door were not successful. The owner issued a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine following Tuesday’s meeting, asking to be named by the LLC called “The Back Door, LLC.” They said their business would not have sold pornography or videos.
They told NEWS CENTER Maine that after Tuesday’s meeting they are no longer interested in bringing their store to the area. They say they will look for another town that “will welcome their contribution to the economy that by bringing a classy, fun store that will provide jobs.”