Tacony Civic wins appeal against sex club zoning

The Zoning Board of Adjustment said a self-described “sex-positive community” is not entitled to a use permit previously granted by the city.

Philly Music Hall LLC’s co-founder Deborah Rose Hinchey answered questions from residents during a March 23 community meeting at the historic Tacony Music Hall building. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment has revoked a self-described “sex-positive” organization’s permit to operate a private sex-oriented club at a historic former music hall in Tacony.

The six-member board voted unanimously on Sept. 13 in favor of the Tacony Civic Association’s appeal of the fraternal organization permit previously granted to Philly Music Hall LLC by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection on April 3. The permit applied to the 4815 Longshore Ave. building commonly known as the Tacony Music Hall.

The civic association successfully argued through a private attorney that the Philly Music Hall group did not qualify as a “fraternal organization” under the zoning code’s definition of the term. The civic group further argued L&I improperly awarded the permit to the club for what amounts to a regulated adult-oriented use.

“We appealed their over-the-counter permit to act as a fraternal organization like the Sons of Italy,” Tacony Civic Zoning Chairman Sam Schepis said after the three-hour zoning board session. “We told the zoning board (Philly Music Hall) didn’t tell L&I everything.”

“Right now, they do not have a permit to do anything in that building,” said Connie Schepis, who is Sam’s wife and a Tacony civic board member.

Deborah Rose Hinchey, a Philly Music Hall spokeswoman, told the Northeast Times her organization will appeal the zoning board’s decision.

“The Philly Music Hall is going to immediately appeal. We’re in conversations with L&I to make sure we fully adhere to the zoning code,” Hinchey said.

The city Law Department, which argued in support of the permit on behalf of L&I, declined to comment on the case. An attorney for the civic association, Matthew N. McClure of Ballard Spahr, said he wished to withhold comment on the case due to the possible appeal.

Philly Music Hall obtained its fraternal organization use permit on April 6, but use of the Longshore Avenue property has been a public issue since Jan. 30, when Philly Music Hall applied to operate a nightclub or private club there. Opened in 1885, the three-story red brick building originally served as an entertainment venue, library and community center for the company town created by Henry Disston around his world-renowned saw works.

By 1965, it was being used as a furniture warehouse. In 1989, a local couple bought the building and established a real estate business there. The building later housed the Tacony Historical Society office and archives. In 1995, the zoning board permitted a daycare center that still operates on the ground floor. After the property’s sale last year, Philly Music Hall agreed to lease the second and third floors and sought to establish what it described as a “sex-positive community” there.

After L&I denied the nightclub/private club application in January, Philly Music Hall appealed to the zoning board. As part of the zoning appeal process, Philly Music Hall was required to present its plans at a public meeting. More than 100 people attended the March 23 session at the music hall.

During the meeting, Hinchey said her group wanted to establish a “safe, members-only space for the alternative sexual communities of Philadelphia.” Previously, Hinchey said the proposed center would serve “those who are marginalized for their sexual identities,” such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or transsexual communities as well as those who identify as queer, intersex or asexual and those who practice non-traditional relationship styles. Collectively, Hinchey referred to those categorizations as the alt-sex community.

Hinchey further said at the March 23 meeting sexual activity would not be encouraged on-site, but it would not be prohibited. She said that club employees or members would not be compensated for sex demonstrations or performances. Alcohol and drugs would be prohibited from the property, Hinchey said.

Neighbors voted 81–18 that night to oppose the club’s zoning application.

Rather than fight the neighbors at an ensuing zoning board meeting, Philly Music Hall withdrew its nightclub/private club application and filed a new application as a fraternal organization. L&I granted the permit on April 6 allowing the club to operate privately. Four days later, the civic association appealed the permit. City Councilman Bobby Henon, state Sen. John Sabatina and state Rep. Mike Driscoll each co-signed the civic association’s April 10 letter to the zoning board seeking a new hearing.

The city’s zoning code defines “fraternal organization” as, “The use of a building or lot by a not-for-profit organization that restricts access to its facility to bona fide, annual dues-paying members and their occasional guests. Banquet rooms and the preparation and serving of food and beverages and occasional live entertainment are uses and activities in association with fraternal organizations.”

Meanwhile, the zoning code defines “adult-oriented services” as a regulated use, including adult cabarets, modeling or photography, movie theaters, spas or health clubs and massage shops. Sales of adult-oriented merchandise such as printed materials, videos and sex toys are also regulated by the code.

Hinchey has said that Philly Music Hall would conduct social and educational events involving sexual and non-sexual topics. Members pay dues. The organization filed for nonprofit status last spring. ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.