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February 10, 2014

Essex Junction Considers New Land-Use Code to Prevent Unscrupulous Massage Parlors

Seiwa PhotoOn Tuesday, the Village of Essex Junction Board of Trustees will consider proposed changes to its land development code that would make it more difficult to open massage parlors that allow criminal activities on their premises. The measure, introduced by village trustee Elaine Sopchak, comes in response to revelations last year by Seven Days that at least three Chittenden County massage parlors, including the now-defunct Seiwa Spa in Essex Junction (seen right in a May 2013 photo), were allegedly offering sex for money, possibly by female workers who were the victims of human trafficking.

The proposal, scheduled for discussion at the board's February 11 meeting, would create a new section of the village's land development code that specifically targets massage establishments. According to Sopchak, the new code would define what constitutes a massage parlor and would require a public hearing before one may open, as well as routine inspections and an annually renewable business permit.

The new code would also place physical restrictions on such businesses, such as prohibiting sleeping quarters on the premises, banning locks on massage room doors and not allowing customers to enter and exit from the rear of the building. Sopchak, who's been working closely on the new code with Essex Police Chief Brad LaRose, said that many of the proposed changes are borrowed from a model ordinances developed by the Polaris Project, an international anti-human-trafficking group based in Washington, D.C.

Sopchak said she doesn't expect the board to vote on the new land-use rules at Tuesday night's meeting, as there will likely be amendments and additions suggested. 

At the board's January 28 meeting,Village president George Tyler said that for some time now, the village has been looking for ways to keep out massage parlors of "questionable repute" because "this isn't the first time this has happened here."

In July 2004, following months of police surveillance and undercover investigation, Essex Police, along with agents from the FBI and U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, raided the Tokyo Spa in Essex Junction and two other "health clubs" suspected of prostitution and money laundering. In all, eight Asian women were taken into custody, including three who admitted to performing sex acts for money. However, no prosecutions were ever secured, as all of the witnesses later disappeared before the case could be put together. Only later did police conclude that their "suspects" were most likely trafficking victims themselves.

Seiwa Spa, one of four Asian massage businesses that closed in June 2012, following the Seven Days exposé, was located directly across the street from the old Tokyo Spa location. There are no similar businesses operating in the village now. 

Essex Junction's new land use code is just one of several efforts now underway across the state to crack down on unscrupulous massage businesses. Last month, Rep. Tim Jerman (D-Essex Junction) introduced legislation to license massage therapists. Jerman, who also attended the January 28 trustees' meeting, noted that his bill faces considerable opposition from legitimate massage therapists, many of whom are opposed to new fees and educational mandates. Similar efforts to license massage therapists have failed in the past, in part because they were opposed by the Secretatry of State's Office of Professional Regulation.

Sopchak said, "Licensure is a great tool, but it’s only one of several tools … Chief LaRose wants more.” Notably, she said, creating a local ordinance or zoning restriction is one more way to get police “in the door” of these businesses and root out the unscrupulous ones.

Also in the works in the legislature are efforts to amend Vermont's prostitution law, which dates back to the 1920s and defines the act as exchanging money for "intercourse." Under that narrow definition, many of the sex acts being offered by Chittenden County massage parlors (namely "happy ending" hand jobs) were not technically "prostitution" but fell under the lesser charge of "prohibited acts."

2013 file photo by Ken Picard.

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