Police in Nederland, Texas, are supporting the adoption of a zoning ordinance restricting massage parlors to industrial areas of town as a means of fighting human trafficking.
"This is a nationwide trend where massage establishments are a haven for labor trafficking, human trafficking and other nefarious deeds," Nederland Police Chief Gary Porter said at a Monday City Council meeting, Port Arthur News reports. "We're just trying to get ahead of the game on this, so we're not having a problem like that."
The council is currently considering a new ordinance that would restrict new massage parlors to the small area of the town zoned for industrial uses. These businesses could also operate in "highway retail" zones, but only if they received a special use permit.
If passed, these rules would be more restrictive than current regulations that allow massage parlors to operate in commercial and industrial zones without the need for a special use permit, reports Port Arthur News.
Nederland City Manager Christopher Duque tells Reason in an email that the city has an estimated five to seven existing massage parlors. He says he's not sure how many would be made nonconforming by the ordinance being considered by the council.
Existing nonconforming businesses would be allowed to stay open. But their owners would be prohibited from structurally altering or expanding their buildings. If they sell the business, the next owner wouldn't be able to operate a massage parlor at the same location.
No business would be entitled to a special use permit either; the City Council has the discretion to reject or condition the issuance of them. Permit applicants would have to go through a public hearing and could be asked to provide plans and expert testimony on the impact of their business.
These discretionary approval processes often act as a deterrent to new businesses, who often don't want to undertake the expense of paying application fees, drafting up plans, and attending hearings in pursuit of a permit that could ultimately be rejected.
According to Port Arthur News, the proposed zoning restrictions come in response to allegations of illegal activities at massage parlors.
Porter said at Monday's City Council meeting that his department was looking into those allegations. It's not clear if any massage parlor owners, employees, or clients have been cited or charged with illegal activity connected to these businesses.
Reason reached out to Porter for comment but did not receive a reply by press time.
How zoning would address alleged illegal activities at massage parlors is a mystery. These businesses aren't more likely to become sites of prohibited sex work because they're located in a commercial zone.
Fears of massage parlors being sites of human trafficking are massively overblown. Raids on these businesses rarely result in liberated victims. They do often result in charges and jail time for employees. Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes that restrictions on massage parlors have an ugly history of anti-Asian racism.
Zoning laws often work to exclude unpopular, but otherwise innocuous, businesses from opening in cities, or in desirable areas of cities. That's particularly true for discretionary zoning approval processes that give neighbors formal opportunities to complain and politicians the flexibility to reject permit applications.
Cities concerned about legitimate externalities like pollution, noise, and traffic can regulate those impacts directly. Little is accomplished by drawing arbitrary lines over what types of businesses can locate where.
Duque says Nederland city staff are still drafting the massage parlor zoning ordinance and that the city has received no public input on it yet.