Cap the strip clubs? French Quarter spots would be limited to as few as 7, under panel recommendations _lowres (copy)

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- State officials are shopping around a new, voluntary program that would let strip clubs -- like the Penthouse Club seen here on Iberville St. in the French Quarter in New Orleans on Thursday, June 23, 2016 -- and bars hire "secret shoppers" to watch for illegal activity. The new program would go into effect before Oct. 1, which is when state officials will enforce a new ban on dancers under 21. 

To clean up New Orleans' signature adult entertainment street, the City Council could establish a cap on the number of strip clubs on Bourbon Street, but it also could evaluate each club on a case-by-case basis or simply let police enforce existing rules, according to a revised study out this week from the staff of the City Planning Commission.

The list of suggestions — a change from an earlier study that urged the council to cap and eventually reduce the number of strip clubs to as few as seven — comes after protests from club dancers and owners, who said a cap wasn’t justified because no link between strip clubs and crime has been proven.

The new report acknowledges as much. “Because staff has not made the direct causal link between the number of adult live performance venues and crime in New Orleans, it does not have one specific recommendation,” staffers wrote.

The Planning Commission will consider the revised study next week and then send its suggestions to the council, which asked the panel to explore the issue earlier this year.

Both the old study and the new one say police should better enforce existing laws and that the council should create a specific license for strip clubs — one that would require an annual inspection of the club to be renewed. Those annual inspections would be distinct from the special case-by-case evaluations the new study says the council could consider.

The recommendations come after a long-running debate over whether the council should keep tighter tabs on the clubs, a dispute that flared up again in 2015 after 19-year-old dancer Jasilas Wright was left for dead on Interstate 10 in Metairie by a man investigators said was her pimp. The man, Adam Littleton, has been charged with second-degree murder in the case.

Shortly thereafter, Covenant House Executive Director Jim Kelly urged the council to place new age restrictions on strippers. A few months later, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the State Police sanctioned at least a half-dozen French Quarter clubs because of allegations of prostitution and drug dealing on their premises.

The council honored Kelly’s request in January by voting to ban all new strip-club employees younger than 21 from dancing nude or partially nude, and state lawmakers later instituted a similar ban. The council also effectively banned new clubs from opening.

Although the city's age rule for dancers applies only to new hires, the state law contains no such exception and trumps the local one, state officials have said. It takes effect Oct. 1.

State Police and the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control have also rolled out a separate self-policing program, in which club owners would help the state keep tabs on illegal activity.

Under the new study’s proposed “conditional use” option, the council would evaluate each new Bourbon Street strip club to gauge its compliance with a specific set of rules. Those rules could require clubs to install separate bathrooms and changing areas for dancers, install security cameras and provide proof of police-issued identification for dancers, staff said.

Clubs would also be asked to send security and noise abatement plans to the Department of Safety and Permits, among other requirements, planners said.

In June, the Planning Commission staff said that creating a conditional-use requirement for new clubs in the seven-block stretch of Bourbon Street “may be problematic,” due to potential “constitutional issues” that could be raised if some clubs were not allowed to open. It also acknowledged that creating such a process would not guarantee that the number of clubs would go down.

The staff again raised those concerns in the report released Tuesday but still pitched the conditional-use requirement as an option.

An alternative, the study said, would be the previously proposed limit of one club on either side of the street per city block. The total cap would be set at seven clubs and would be reached through attrition; when existing clubs close, they could not be replaced.

The staff also proposed as an alternative that the council simply let police enforce existing laws.

Kelly, the Covenant House director, said the council should cap the number of clubs. “There are still drugs and prostitution in a large number of strip clubs,” he said.

But Tim Spratt of Kirkendoll Entertainment, which runs the Penthouse Club on Iberville Street, said Penthouse and other clubs are “good actors” that contribute to New Orleans’ economy. The planning staff was right to suggest that the council simply let police do their jobs, he said.

“The inclusion of (the option of) using existing laws to 'weed out' these bad actors was a welcome addition to the report,” he said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.