(July 4, 2014) The former Sin City adult store on 137th Street has changed both its name and its window displays as part of a settlement with the Town of Ocean City, reached after more than a year of negotiations following a court decision in March of 2013.
“It’s a done deal,” City Solicitor Guy Ayres confirmed this week.
As part of the agreement, owner Ofir Bouzaglo has changed the name of his store to “Déjà Vu – a Romantic Boutique” and removed his previous window displays, which featured several neon signs and lingerie-clad mannequins.
“Basically, he had to change the signage, and he’s now limited as to what he can put in the windows,” Ayres said.
In return for toning down the exterior of his business, the city has released any claim to its previous attempt to revoke Bouzaglo’s businesses license. That action had been struck down last year when the court found that the city was biased in Bouzaglo’s initial license hearing – but also ordered that a second fair hearing was to be held if a compromise could not be reached.
“We would’ve had to have another hearing before the city,” said Bouzaglo’s attorney, David Gaskill.
Instead, Bouzaglo conceded to a number of restrictions, including the name change as well as the elimination of all electronic signage other than neon “open” signs. Any future changes to signage must be expressly approved by the Mayor and City Council, per the settlement agreement.
The settlement also spells out that the store’s window displays “are to have red background with hearts, flowers and feather boas with no visible mannequins or other items permitted in the windows.”
“Whatever we can do to curb the vulgarity of it is what we did,” said City Council President Lloyd Martin. “If you say ‘adult boutique’…for kids and families, it doesn’t scream ‘sex shop’ anymore.”
Bouzaglo is also prevented from opening another adult store in the city limits. Déjà Vu is currently the only such operation.
Asked if this was a positive outcome for his client, Gaskill said it was.
“Bottom line, he’s still open,” Gaskill said.
The saga of Sin City, Ocean City’s only sex shop, dates back to its founding by Bouzaglo and his former business partner Moshe Bitton in 2007. Almost as soon as it opened, the store caused a massive outcry from city officials and business leaders over the resort’s coveted family image and the damage the story was perceived to have done.
In response, the city passed an ordinance in early 2008 which heavily restricted so-called “Sexually-Oriented Businesses” via the city’s zoning code, only allowing such uses outside of a 600-foot minimum distance from religious and recreational facilities. Such facilities include the beach itself, and given that the entire resort is barely 600 feet wide in some places, the ordinance essentially bans sex shops from all but a few narrow strips of land.
Bitton and Bouzaglo’s store – then named Sex Style – did not meet the location requirements, but was given ‘grandfathered’ zoning status. If the shop was closed for more than 60 days, however, it would lose its rights to a non-conforming use under the zoning code.
In the spring of 2011 – according to court documents – Bitton and Bouzaglo had a highly contentious falling-out over their business, which resulted in Bouzaglo taking over the holding company, BB Novelties, Inc., which owned the pair’s Ocean City store as well as stores elsewhere. But Bitton’s name was on the lease at the 137th Street facility, and he threatened to repossess any of Bouzaglo’s merchandise that was in a space which was still technically part his.
To this end, Bouzaglo removed all of his merchandise from Sex Style in June 2011 – but continued, he claimed, to return on select nights and weekends with boxes of DVDs to sell and then take with him out of the store to prevent repossession by Bitton.
In the fall, Bouzaglo was able to renew his lease without Bitton, and re-stocked the store with a new name – Sin City. But when he went to re-apply for a business license, Bouzaglo was told the city had reason to suspect that he had been closed through the summer, and had violated the 60-day statute for non-conforming use.
Bouzaglo requested a business license hearing – a quasi-judicial rendering authorized by state law and under the city’s charter.
The hearing is to be conducted by the City Manager, but by the time the hearing was held in October 2011, former City Manager Dennis Dare had already been ousted from his post, leaving Mayor Rick Meehan as acting City Manager.
Meehan, according to court documents, stated that he had a conflict of interest regarding real estate at the site and could not preside over the hearing. Instead, then-Council Secretary Martin was selected by Meehan to hear the case.
In the hearing, Bouzaglo testified that he was not closed for a period of 60 days during the summer, and presented tax rolls, electric bills, and several witnesses who had been to the store or helped him transport merchandise. But the Bayside Plaza Condo Association – many of whose owners had been publicly opposed to a sex store in their shopping center in 2007 – presented testimony that they had never seen Bouzaglo during the time period in question.
Martin ultimately found against Bouzaglo, and he was ordered to shut down his business. However, Bouzaglo quickly appealed the case, sending it to Maryland Circuit Court for Worcester County.
In the appeal, Gaskill argued that Martin was biased against Bouzaglo’s testimony for a number of reasons, including his affirmative vote in the previously passed ordinance restricting adult stores.
But the deciding factor for Judge Thomas Groton was Martin’s testimony that he knew one of Bouzaglo’s witnesses – a man named Vernon Spence – to be untrustworthy through previous dealings with him.
“It was an unfortunate circumstance that Martin, as hearing examiner and though no fault of his own, had contact with Spence on a prior occasion,” Groton wrote. “There has been produced no evidence that Martin was biased or prejudiced as to Appellant or the subject matter of Appellant’s business; however, his decision was certainly influenced by his extra-judicial knowledge and dealing with Spence.
“Under such circumstances, Appellant was not afforded a clean slate upon which to present its case.”