Visalia tightens rules on massage parlors

(Rigo Moran)

City passes emergency ordinance to rezone incoming massage parlors, prevent business clustering

VISALIA – Taking a hands-on approach, Visalia has enacted a temporary emergency measure to tighten up regulations on massage parlors in the city, not only to avoid clusters of new businesses in the same area but also to fortify inspection protocols.

Visalia City Council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance on March 4 to rezone future massage parlors and prevent businesses from opening in neighborhoods while adding new inspection requirements. The last time that Visalia updated regulations for massage parlors was in 2012.

Since then, the number of massage parlors has grown considerably. Paul Bernal, the city’s planning and community preservation director, said that city staff had recently seen an increase in the number of business license requests, which has led to a reexamination of the zoning regulations and health and safety code regulating the businesses.

“What we want to reiterate here is that these additional regulations don’t represent an outright restriction or ban or moratorium on the use,” Bernal said. “Again, it’s looking at additional guidelines that will help ensure public health and safety for any of the nuisance issues that we have dealt with in the past.”

The emergency ordinance is a temporary method for the city to quickly address an issue but doesn’t take the place of formal rule changes that must go through a public process. The process can be time-consuming. The report on the ordinance states that the main purpose is to inform businesses that formal regulations are in the works.

The emergency order sets a distance requirement that businesses must be more than 750 feet apart from one another, a rule that Bernal said many existing businesses don’t meet, particularly on the Mooney Boulevard corridor. Bernal noted that not all of the businesses in the city are traditional massage parlors, many are therapeutic or wellness centers and several are attached to medical practices.

The new regulations will prevent massage parlors from covering or blocking windows that face public areas and set new lighting requirements the businesses must meet. The guidelines also establish that living quarters are not permitted and set requirements that front, reception, or hallway doors must remain unlocked during business hours.

Bernal said that existing regulations cover hours of operation and there does not seem to be a need to make changes to the current rules. The buffer zone distance of 750 feet was arrived at by looking at similar types of businesses and comparing the zoning requirements to those in other cities. Bernal explained that existing businesses would not be affected unless they were to close operations and try to reopen, at which point the new zoning restrictions would come into play. A map showing the location of all massage businesses was shown to the council and it indicates that the majority of businesses are clustered on Mooney Boulevard, with a smaller number in the downtown and Court Street area.

The emergency ordinance will only be valid for 45 days, at which point it could be extended for an additional 45 days. Bernal said he believes planning staff will require about 60 days to draft formal regulations to permanently set new requirements and provide a 10-day public comment period. City council will have the opportunity to change things such as zoning location allowances as the formal process comes together.

“It’s hard to set rules and regulations that keep good people who are in business doing things correctly in a way that they can still be profitable, and also protect our community from the bad actors,” Vice Mayor Brett Taylor said. He asked if Bernal had reached out to the massage industry for guidance on updated regulations.

“I know that they don’t like the bad actors, either, because it makes their industry look bad,” Taylor added.

While no specific problems were mentioned at the council meeting, The Sun-Gazette reported in 2023 about two arrests of women working at massage parlors who were charged with prostitution. Current regulations don’t firmly outline inspection requirements for these businesses. The emergency ordinance specifically provides language that massage parlors are subject to inspection by both health and safety officers, as well as Visalia police.

Bernal added that the city funded a new position this year that allows the Visalia Planning Commission to have an inspector to make inspections rather than relying on a complaint-driven system.

“It is a new position and it allows us to be a little more aggressive to ensure businesses are complying with the guidelines that are adopted,” Bernal said.

The emergency ordinance went into effect the moment it was passed.

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