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Harsher punishment for illicit massage businesses approved

ESCONDIDO— City council passed the first ordinance of 2015 on Jan. 7 to combat illicit activities in massage parlors.

According to Jay Peterek, assistant planning director for the city, the amount of massage establishments has doubled since 2009 when a state senate bill passed to regulate the licensing of massage practitioners.

The state bill focused on licensing massage therapists but made it difficult for local regulation. It led to an increase in illicit activities, Peterek said.

Mayor Sam Abed said the majority of new massage parlors are fronts for illegal activities, like human trafficking and prostitution.

“I can tell you these are not good businesses, not all of them but most of them are coming to Escondido for the flexibility,” Abed said.

On Jan. 1, a new state bill became effective, called the Massage Therapy Act, which re-establishes local jurisdiction over massage parlors.

The city can now increase penalties for massage facilities that violate the law.

Abed said that with the new assembly bill he wants to get rid of the “bad apples.”

“It’s a struggle from a policy perspective not to penalize good business but at the same time, I will not allow one establishment to misuse the massage places to provide prostitution and misuse. We need to clean the city up,” Abed said.

The ordinance mandates nine shopping areas in which massage businesses can operate out of.

Peterek said they were chosen because they have high traffic and are well maintained, which means it would be difficult for illicit activities to take place.

People wishing to open or continue to operate a massage business outside of the centers must apply for a Conditional Use Permit.

The new ordinance will target owners and operators as well.

In an effort to penalize commercial landlords, properties found to have illicit activities will not be allowed to have another massage business in the same property for five years.

City staff originally asked for a one-year ban but councilmembers wanted to give the ordinance more “teeth” in addressing the problem.

City staff hopes to deter commercial property owners from allowing illegal businesses to rent space with the five-year ban.

“If they choose to do business illegally in Escondido, than we have the tools to put them out of business,” Escondido Police Department Captain James Stuard said.

In the past, owners and operators of illicit massage parlors didn’t face repercussions.

Stuard said the new ordinance will solve past regulation problems that frustrated the police department.

Councilman John Masson expressed concern that some of the regulations would make it difficult for massage therapists who follow the law.

He was worried that sole proprietors weren’t allowed to lock their doors or take cash payments.

Peterek and Stuard assured him that provisions for sole proprietors would allow them to lock the door when they’re in with a patient and to take cash payments.

The ordinance does not apply to businesses in which 15 percent of the space or less is used for massage.

For example, a 1000 square foot gym would not have to abide by the ordinance if the gym housed a massage space that is 150 square feet or less.

All massage therapists must be certified and licensed in the state to practice in Escondido.

The changes go into effect Feb. 14. Councilmembers hope the new enforcement ordinance will drive out illegal businesses and leave only legitimate massage therapists.