- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—CHESAPEAKE — When members of the Planning Commission first began hearing whispers about massage therapy businesses in town, some concerns in particular got their attention: Customers late into the night. Propositions for more than a professional massage. Possible human trafficking.

“We learned about it and became alarmed,” member Adam Perry said. “Chesapeake prides itself on being a family-friendly community, one that human trafficking has no place in.”

Backpage, a classified advertising website, lists massage businesses with Chesapeake addresses that boast of “new girls” and include pictures of females in lingerie. The locations, open past 10 p.m., are in several areas of the city, including Greenbrier and Great Bridge.

Business owners near a couple of the establishments, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they see customers in the parking lot as late as 1 a.m.

In April, the commission asked the City Council for permission to discuss requiring a conditional use permit for new massage businesses. The process would include a public hearing and would allow city leaders to press for details about an establishment’s hours and practices. Currently, a business offering massages can open by registering with the city.

Perry, in a memo to the commission, said the wrong type of business can hurt economic development.

“If you were looking for a place to open your business,” he wrote, “would you consider locating next to some of the massage therapy establishments you have seen?”

Tonight, City Council is scheduled to jump into the issue. It will review a proposed ordinance that would place more restrictions on such businesses.

The regulations would change the penalty for touching certain areas of the body during a massage from a Class 2 misdemeanor to a Class 1, which carries a $2,500 maximum fine and up to one year in prison.

In addition, operating hours would be limited to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., and massage therapists would have to be licensed by the Virginia Board of Nursing. Norfolk and Virginia Beach also require those performing massages to be certified by the state.

The city’s Health Department and law enforcement would be able to issue summonses for violating the ordinance.

The Health Department has not shut down any massage therapy businesses in recent years, according to city spokesman Heath Covey.

The Chesapeake Police Department also has not made arrests related to prostitution or human trafficking at massage businesses within the past few years, according to Officer Kelly O’Sullivan, a police spokeswoman.

The ordinance would give local officials more options for pursuing charges, just as a new Virginia law aimed at targeting human trafficking does for state-level law enforcement.

Patrick McKenna, co-founder of Virginia Beach Justice Initiative, said sex trafficking is a problem across Hampton Roads. He called the law “huge” but warned that tracking those involved can be tricky.

“Street-level prostitution is moving increasingly online,” he said.

Council member Roland Davis said that while he supports the proposed ordinance, he opposes requiring a conditional use permit because he doesn’t think the council “should be in the business of background checks.”

Perry, however, thinks the council should take that step.

“By requiring a conditional use permit, City Council will be reserving the right to ask questions about proposals that were previously unable to be discussed or debated publicly,” he said. “This is about giving council a chance to vote up or down on projects that impact Chesapeake families.”

Pilot writer Margaret Matray contributed to this report.

Mary Beth Gahan, 757-222-5208, [email protected]

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