Despite the measure’s murky standing in state law, on Jan. 12 the Simi Valley and Ventura city councils each passed an urgency moratorium on the establishment of new massage businesses.
The move came following the expiration of a state law that was ultimately incapable of stemming the proliferation of parlors that operate illegally by offering clients erotic add-ons to run-of-the-mill rub-downs. In its place, Assembly Bill 1147 restores cities’ purview over land-use and zoning regulations for massage parlors.
According to one online listing of erotic massage parlors, there are 34 such businesses in Simi Valley. In Ventura, city officials estimate there are currently 64 illegal parlors in operation.
Such establishments have been under close watch in Simi Valley since 2009, when the chief of police reported that the city was experiencing a significant increase in massage establishment applications, and an increase in pending revocations due to allegations of illegal sexual activity.
Issues have also been raised surrounding the threat posed to public safety by establishments operating on the fringes of the law. On Jan. 8, Jose Guzman Ochoa of Oxnard was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the Feb. 19, 2010, murder of Sun Cha-Kays at Tokyo Spa in Oxnard where she worked. Two days before, Ochoa also committed robbery and sexual assault at the spa.
However, the bill, approved Sept. 18, opens by stating that “no city, county, or city and county shall prohibit a person or group of persons, authorized … by a license, certificate, or other means to engage in a particular business.”
Ahmos Netanel, CEO of the California Massage Therapy Council, said AB 1147 was enacted to raise certification standards. It is unclear, he said, whether moratoriums that cover certified massage therapists are legal.
“There are some issues with that,” Netanel said. “For example, if an individual massage therapist wants to open an office, and they are certified through this law, and the city of Simi Valley imposes a moratorium, as you can see the city can be in violation of the state law.”
In Simi Valley, the council unanimously adopted a 45-day moratorium on the issuance of any permit, license, approval or entitlement for new massage businesses and expansion of existing ones to allow the city time to draft a new ordinance addressing some of the legislation AB 1147 initiated. A hearing to consider an extension of the 45-day moratorium is scheduled for February.
Simi Valley City Attorney Lonnie Eldridge said the is move lawful under a land use planning section in state law that allows a moratorium on new businesses while a local government studies the effects of proposed regulations.
Peter Lyons, Simi Valley’s director of environmental services, said the city is “anxious to develop the most recent standards for regulating massage establishments” and “working toward a plan to ensure massage establishments operate legally.”
He said that in 2008, SB 731, California’s first statewide regulatory system for massage therapy, gave the state the power to certify and authorize massage therapists. Now AB 1147 will allow for more local control.
“We’re working with the police department and city officials here to see if we can do it,” Lyons said. “There’s a very good chance we’ll extend it.”
City officials maintain that there will be little impact on lawfully operating massage establishments currently in operation.
Ventura’s unanimously passed moratorium is an extension of a previous ban on new massage parlors that was enacted in December. The measure had expired Jan. 1, but the city now has until Dec. 30 to create an ordinance with permanent regulations.
“We’re looking at the implications of the new legislation on our land use and permitting authority, and we’ve been working with both code enforcement and the police department and business license … so that whatever we proposed to you will be something that we believe we can implement and establish,” Ventura City Attorney Gregory Diaz said.
Over the last four years, the number of massage parlors in Ventura increased 44 percent, city officials estimate, and facility inspections have resulted in more than 100 criminal or administrative actions by the city.
— Marissa Wenzke contributed reporting to this article.