Sex Shop Scandal

Zoning Compliance


Old Town Alexandria in Virginia is a historic neighborhood of red brick homes and townhouses, shops and restaurants, parks and cobblestone streets, and a waterfront with a view of Washington, D.C. George Washington frequented the neighborhood's taverns, and Robert E. Lee grew up there. Unfortunately, the neighborhood's stringent zoning rules are killing some of its charm. Small businesses often can't afford to navigate the bureaucratic morass, which means chain franchises with deeper pockets are becoming more common.

Michael Zarlenga knows this as well as anyone. In March The Washington Post reported that Zarlenga spent two years and $350,000 drawing up plans to expand his hunting and fishing supply shop just off King Street, Old Town's main strip. To be sure he was in compliance with the neighborhood's strict zoning and historic preservation guidelines, Zarlenga consulted a member of the city's Board of Architectural Review through each step in the process. But when it came time for a final board decision in 2007, Zarlenga was rejected. Among those who voted no was the board member with whom Zarlenga had been working for months. When the board suggested he start from scratch and come back with new plans, an emotional Zarlenga replied, "The simple fact is there's no money left, OK?"

But Zarlenga got his revenge. Instead of renovating his building, he rented the space—to a sex shop. The racy store, Le Tache, now sits in the heart of Alexandria's tourist district, just off the waterfront. Scantily clad mannequins beckon tourists into the historically preserved building, where displays featuring lingerie, vibrators, and dildos sit atop 200-year-old hardwood floors. City leaders are furious, but the shop is in full compliance with the law. Even if the city were to pass a new ordinance banning sex shops from the neighborhood, Le Tache would be grandfathered in. The shop's owner says business is booming, even in a down economy.

Now the city is exploring ways to close down the business through obscenity laws. Though Zarlenga seems to have won the short-term battle, he dreamed of an even more delicious victory. "I was hoping for a fast-food chain," he confessed to the Post, "because I thought that would be more annoying to the city."