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Rehoboth officials accused of ‘hassling’ businesses

Code enforcement officer creates stir over visit to Aqua Grill

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Rehoboth Beach (Blade file photo)

A code enforcement officer in Rehoboth Beach, Del., became the target of a radio talk show host last weekend after the officer told the gay bar and restaurant Aqua Grill that it violated a local ordinance for flying a flag two inches too low over the sidewalk next to its entrance.

The civilian enforcement officer informed Aqua’s manager of the code violation on May 13 after determining that a flag with the inscription “Open – Welcome to Beautiful Baltimore Avenue” dipped below an 80-inch minimum height restriction for flags extending into public spaces, according to Aqua Grill co-owner Joe Maggio.

“He said we were being cited and we would receive a letter in the mail,” said Maggio, who told the Blade he couldn’t confirm over the weekend whether the bar would be fined for the height violation.

“He could have come in and said, ‘hey, it needs to be raised two inches.’ And we would have been happy to pull out a drill and move it,” said Maggio.

The popular bar and restaurant decided instead to have someone shear off the bottom of the flag with a pair of scissors to comply with the height restriction, Maggio said.

A city official said on Monday said Aqua Grill wasn’t fined and that the enforcement officer only issued a warning, saying the city would give the establishment time to correct the infraction.

But news of the enforcement action created a stir when an Aqua Grill customer present during the visit by the enforcement officer posted an account of the incident on Facebook.

Sussex County radio host Dan Gaffney joined gay supportive Delaware State Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) and other Aqua Grill customers in criticizing the city for appearing to be hurting local businesses through unnecessary regulations.

“This is stupid beyond belief,” Schwartzkopf wrote on Facebook. “In this economy, they are hassling businesses? I thought it might’ve been the American flag but we are talking about an ‘Open’ sign!”

Rehoboth Beach City Manager Gregory Ferrese said on Monday that the code enforcement officer has found violations of the height restriction for flags in 29 businesses so far this year. He said no specific type of business was being singled out in the enforcement action and that all businesses contacted so far have been given warning notices rather than a fine.

Ferrese and the city’s public works director, Mel Craig, who is gay, told the Blade that enforcement of the height regulation for flags hanging over public spaces like sidewalks was prompted by complaints from the public.

“I’ve gotten hit in the face by flags on a windy day when I walk down the sidewalk,” Craig said.

“If a kid gets hit in the eye with a flag, that’s a big deal,” said Ferrese.

According to Ferrese, city regulatory officials determined that the city is required to enforce the flag height restriction in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, a federal law. The law, among other things, requires cities and towns to make sure the “path of travel” along public spaces such as sidewalks doesn’t include a potential obstruction for people with disabilities, including blind people.

An ADA official with the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, which enforces the statute, said the law and the regulations implementing it make no specific mention of flags, only that local jurisdictions should ensure that sidewalks and other public spaces don’t create a hazard for disabled people.

Jacques LeClair, owner of Rehoboth’s Proud Book Store, said he was among the first businesses approached by code enforcement officer Bobby Edmonds about flying his own flag below the height restriction.

“He was very polite. I got a letter from his office saying I was in violation,” LeClair said. “They gave me a period of time to correct it. I corrected it.”

LeClair added, “It’s not that they are picking on any one person or business. They are picking on everyone.”

Chris Beagle, a Rehoboth real estate agent and Aqua Grill customer, said the flag enforcement visit at Aqua raised concern within the local LGBT community because of its timing. He noted that it came on the first day Aqua opened for business for the 2011 beach season.

Beagle noted it also came eight months after Aqua’s other owner, Bill Shields, was mistakenly arrested and finger printed for allegedly violating another ordinance that prohibits restaurants and bars from allowing customers to stay on outdoor patios after 11 p.m.

Police raided 12 establishments for the patio violation during a crackdown last year that took place mostly over Labor Day weekend. Authorities now admit that Aqua was among just two or three of the establishments that were incorrectly targeted for the crackdown.

Shields said a Rehoboth Beach police officer who arrested him refused to listen to his attempt to explain that Aqua and other establishments that were in business before the patio ordinance was enacted are exempt from the ordinance through a grandfather clause.

Rehoboth’s police chief later acknowledged that the officer made a mistake by arresting Shields, saying the officer wasn’t aware that Aqua was exempt from the ordinance. Police later dropped the charge, but Shields said authorities have yet to follow through with a promise to expunge his arrest record.

With that as a backdrop, Beagle said the code enforcement visit to Aqua over the flag issue last weekend was “really bad timing” and a development that could give the impression to the LGBT community that a gay business is being targeted.

“It was very disheartening to see this happen on opening night,” said Beagle, who was present at the bar and saw Edmonds arrive wearing a jacket with the inscription “Code Enforcement.”

Maggio said he and other business owners and longtime residents of Rehoboth, both gay and straight, are “fed up” with what they view as an anti-business attitude in a city whose economy is dependent on small businesses.

He said he and others dissatisfied over the city’s regulatory policies are supporting gay businessman Thomas McGlone, an investment adviser, who is running against longtime Rehoboth Mayor Samuel Cooper in the city’s Aug. 13 mayoral election.

Cooper disputes claims that he is anti-business. He has said he supports local laws and regulations that prevent bars and other entertainment establishments from spoiling Rehoboth’s status and tradition as a family-oriented vacation destination.

Two of the city’s six elected commissioners, Dennis Barbour, who is gay, and Pat Coluzzi, who is lesbian, say they favor a balance between regulations needed to prevent disruptive businesses and assurances that businesses aren’t hurt by overregulation.

The two have spoken out against the patio crackdown last year and called for regulatory changes.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Peter Rosenstein

    May 17, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    The time has come for City Administrator Greg Ferrese to call in his staff and City Agency Directors, there aren’t that many of them, and explain to them the realities of Rehoboth. That business is what keeps the City alive and allows people with million dollar homes to pay practically nothing in taxes. I remember two years ago friends buying a house in Rehoboth and getting their first tax bill and thinking that isn’t a bad monthly bill and then found out it was their yearly bill. About what they paid a month in Maryland.

    I don’t care if the business is gay or straight owned but Ferrese and the Commissioners have to deal with the people that work for them and tell them what they expect and how they are expected to treat businesses and everyone in the town. This incident could have been handled in such a simple way. Tell the manager what the law is without stating they are being cited for a violation and then send a notice to the business explaining the law and asking for compliance.

    I don’t live in Rehoboth but rather in Sussex County just outside the legal limits of the town. But I think many of us that do and spend our money in Rehoboth will actively campaign for new leadership if things don’t change. The statements by the two gay commissioners as reported in this column are not enough. “Two of the city’s six elected commissioners, Dennis Barbour, who is gay, and Pat Coluzzi, who is lesbian, say they favor a balance between regulations needed to prevent disruptive businesses and assurances that businesses aren’t hurt by overregulation.” It is time they stood up to the powers that be and in this case told the City Manager how inappropriate this action by a city code enforcement officer was and how this could have been handled differently so that Rehboth Beach doesn’t keep getting black eyes over these kinds of incidents.

    Rehoboth is such a great place, let’s keep it that way, but also recognize that it has changed over the past 30 years and the whoever is the next Mayor needs to recognize that many of the changes were brought about by the business community, are great, and need to be supported.

  2. AnthonyN

    May 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    You wanted a Nanny State, well you got it…

  3. Angela Channing

    May 17, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Mr. Rosenstein makes some very valid points. So much energy is spent on silly things like this when there are much more serious issues to deal with. For example, last year, there were groups of young men mugging tourists right along the boardwalk. Mr. Beagle’s point is also well taken. It seems very odd that Aqua has been the target of code enforcement for minor infractions. It still shocks me that someone would be arrested for such a thing when in most townships, the civil process is usually employed. It would have been much more appropriate for a Liquor Board or Town Council to hold a hearing, where the owner could have properly defended himself. To quote Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman – “This town needs an enema!” Thank you for listening.

  4. Jon C. Mumford

    May 18, 2011 at 8:34 am

    This defies common sense…

  5. steve fallon

    May 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    adjective
    1.
    pleased, especially with oneself or one’s merits, advantages, situation, etc., often without awareness of some potential danger or defect; self-satisfied: The voters are too complacent to change the government.
    peter is right rehoboth could be a good place however the best description or moniker is complacent.
    it is pretty clear that the code enforcer is rehoboth’s officials reaction to the states commission ruling on the outdoor patio situation, there is cause and affect for most political actions. everybody thought
    the city was going to lay down on this one was mistaken to be believe that the political faction involved here is mature and just. so hence our and i say our complacent attitude on not just this but other events as well has brought us to this cross road. yes it would be a better day if we didn’t have this continuous battle to endure, obviously the political powers that be feel rather comfortable in their position.i hope all who are disgusted by these continuing injustices can have a the same confidence as them to change this wrong.

  6. scotty501

    October 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    I would have just raised the flag without making a big deal out of it. 29 businesses were cited, were there 29 newspaper articless? Petty and paranoid

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Biden endorses Roem for re-election

Former journalist is first out trans person in any state legislature

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Virginia state Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) speaks to supporters following her re-election on Nov. 5, 2019. President Biden has endorsed her for re-election. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Biden on Tuesday endorsed Virginia state Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) for re-election.

Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County) is among the other Democratic members of the Virginia House of Delegates who Biden backed. Biden in his tweet also stressed his support of Terry McAuliffe, who is running against Republican Glenn Youngkin to succeed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

“Building back better starts in the states,” tweeted Biden. “Since flipping the legislature in 2019, Virginia Democrats have been a model of progress—including helping us vaccinate folks to beat the pandemic. To keep our progress, we must elect Terry McAuliffe and Democrats up and down the ballot.”

Roem, a former journalist, in 2018 became the first openly transgender person seated in any state legislature in the U.S.

Biden called Roem on the night she defeated then-state Del. Bob Marshall and congratulated her. A Washington Post picture that showed Roem crying moments later went viral.

The Manassas Democrat who represents the 13th District in 2019 easily won re-election. Christopher Stone, the Republican who is running against Roem in this cycle, opposes marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples.

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Conservatives blame pro-trans policy after assaults in Loudoun schools

‘Gender fluid’ 15-year-old accused of attacking female students

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The Loudoun County, Va., public school system’s recently adopted policy of allowing students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity has come under fire over the past two weeks by outraged parents and conservative political activists following reports that a 15-year-old “gender fluid” boy allegedly sexually assaulted two girls in different high schools.

The parents of one of the girls released a statement through the Virginia-based Stanley Law Group blaming school officials for failing to put in place safeguards to prevent the boy, who they say was dressed in a skirt, from entering the girl’s bathroom to assault their daughter at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., on May 28.

The statement accuses Loudoun County Schools officials and the Loudoun County Board of Education of failing to take steps to prevent the same 15-year-old boy from allegedly sexually assaulting another female student at Broad Run High School, also located in Ashburn, on Oct. 6 in a vacant classroom.

School officials acknowledge that the boy was transferred to the second school after law enforcement authorities released him from a juvenile detention facility following his arrest for the first case, in which the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office said he was charged with two counts of forceable sodomy against his female victim. 

“The sexual assault on our daughter and the subsequent sexual assault by the same individual were both predictable and preventable,” the parents’ statement says. “Subsequent to the sexual assault on our daughter, Loudoun County Public Schools formalized the policy regarding restroom use that was easily exploitable by a potential sexual assailant,” the statement continues. 

“Because of poor planning and misguided policies, Loudoun Schools failed to institute even minimal safeguards to protect students from sexual assaults,” says the statement.

Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler apologized at an Oct. 15 news conference for what he acknowledged was the school systems’ mishandling of the two sexual assault cases. He noted that school officials should have publicly disclosed the two cases or at least alerted parents at the time they occurred. But he said a federal civil rights law known as Title IX that mandates how schools must respond to cases of sexual harassment appeared to prevent Loudoun school officials from initially disclosing the two cases of sexual assault until they were investigated by law enforcement authorities.

Ziegler said the school system was revamping its disciplinary procedures and its interaction with the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office to ensure that parents and students are alerted to potential danger similar to the cases where the 15-year-old boy allegedly assaulted the two female students.

Meanwhile, school officials and the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Loudoun have pointed out that law enforcement officials have yet to confirm whether the 15-year-old boy charged in the two cases was actually dressed in women’s clothes during the first incident or whether he is trans or gender fluid.

Equality Loudoun’s president, Cris Candice Tuck, released a statement to the Washington Blade on Oct. 18 that she said was the first official known statement responding to the Loudoun school controversy from an LGBTQ organization.

“In light of the reporting of recent sexual assault allegations, the Board of Directors of Equality Loudoun wishes to extend our deepest sympathies to the victims of these heinous attacks and their families,” the statement says. “Equality Loudoun advocates for due process and justice for the victims regardless of whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” the statement continues. “Such actions have no place in our community, and Equality Loudoun does not condone any form of sexual violence, assault, or harassment,” it says.

“However, the accusations that the alleged perpetrator of these assaults is transgender or genderfluid have so far been unverified,” the Equality Loudoun statement asserts. “Attempts to shift blame of this incident to any individual, group, or policy – other than the alleged perpetrator – does a grave disservice to the victims of these crimes and already marginalized youth in our community.”

The statement adds, “We remind those advocating for change to the laws and policies that the initial assault predated any enactment of Policy 8040 by almost 4 months.”

The Equality Loudoun statement was referring to the fact that the Loudoun County School Board did not vote to approve the school system’s trans nondiscrimination policy until August of this year, more than three months after the first of the two sexual assault incidents occurred. 

The policy, among other things, allows transgender and genderfluid students to use the school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. The policy also requires that teachers, school administrators and fellow students address a trans or genderfluid student by their chosen name and pronouns.

“Inadvertent slips in the use of names and pronouns may occur,” the policy states. “However, staff or students who intentionally and persistently refuse to respect a student’s gender identity by using the wrong name and gender pronoun are in violation of this policy,” it states.

The statement says that rumors of a bathroom “pilot” program that predated the official approval of Policy 8040 that would have allowed female trans or genderfluid students to use the girls’ bathrooms “are simply untrue” and were never put in place.

In a separate statement to the Blade, Equality Loudoun’s Cris Candice Tuck challenged claims by some parents and conservative political activists, some of whom are supporting Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAulliffe, that the trans nondiscrimination policy is placing students at risk for sexual assault.

“The adoption of nondiscrimination policies are in no way endangering students,” Candice Tuck said. “Across the country, sexual assaults have occurred in schools for decades before any transgender inclusive policies were passed,” she said. “And in those counties and states where such protections have passed in recent years, there has been no verified incidence of anyone abusing such policies to commit such attacks in schools.”

Candice Tuck added, “The focus should be on improving systems of reporting, coordination, and investigation, protecting the victims of these attacks, and creating safer school environments by creating modernized areas and bathrooms that increase protection for all students, including LGBTQ+ students who are statistically more likely to be the victim of such a crime.”  

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D.C. rejects request by gyms to lift mask mandate

LGBTQ-owned venues sign letter calling requirement ‘devastating’ for business

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Owners of two LGBTQ-owned D.C. fitness studios and one gym signed on to a joint letter with the owners of six other similar businesses urging D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. Laquandra Nesbitt to lift a city mandate requiring patrons of gyms and fitness studios to wear masks. 

The Oct. 4 letter, written by gay businessman Bryan Myers, the CEO and president of a chain of local fitness studios using the trademark name of [solidcore], states that the mask mandate, which applies to people who are fully vaccinated for the coronavirus, is based largely on outdated data pertaining to gyms and fitness studios collected prior to the widespread availability of the COVID vaccine.

“More relevant data to inform decision-making would be to study the data from two, large Northeastern cities that have opted to allow fitness classes to continue with the requirement of vaccination in lieu of a mask requirement,” the letter states. “In both New York City and Philadelphia, which have opted for this approach, we have not seen an increase in the trajectory of the Delta variant,” Myers says in the letter.

In the last week of July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation that cities and local jurisdictions with 50 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents per week, which at that time included D.C., should ask residents to voluntarily resume wearing masks indoors. That same week, Bowser announced she would go one step further by mandating the indoor use of masks in most public places, including gyms and fitness spas or studios. 

Bowser and Nesbitt said their intention was to take immediate steps to curtail the spread of the coronavirus so that the city would not be forced to return to the full shutdown mode, including the closing of businesses, that the mayor lifted earlier this year.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced they would ask residents of their states to consider using masks in crowded indoor spaces as recommended by the CDC, but said they would not require mask use. 

In their letter to Bowser and Nesbitt, the gym and fitness studio owners called on the mayor to provide the same exemption to their businesses as the city has provided for restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, which requires masks except when patrons are eating and drinking. 

“While it is true that bars, restaurants, and clubs technically have to follow the same guidelines, we know that in practice, these venues have been granted exceptions by D.C. Health,” the letter says. “On any given night, you can find hundreds of individuals crowded into a U Street bar, at a Capitol Hill restaurant, or thousands at a performance or party at The Anthem enjoying themselves – singing, dancing and physically exerting themselves, shouting – maskless – so long as they have a drink somewhere nearby,” says the letter.

“And to be unequivocally clear, we are not advocating that there is anything wrong with what is happening in other industries or that there be a change to the management of those industries/venues,” the letter continues. “We are simply advocating that we be treated the same as they are.”

The letter adds, “Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the mask mandate for fitness studios and gyms has resulted in devastating financial impact to these businesses – many of which are small locally owned.”

It says patronage has dropped 50 percent for some of the fitness centers and gyms since the mayor’s mask mandate took effect July 29. It points out that the drop in customers comes at a time when many of these businesses have spent thousands of dollars and in some cases hundreds of thousands to upgrade their ventilation and filtration systems and other structural steps to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Myers told the Washington Blade in a statement that neither the Department of Health nor the mayor’s office replied directly to the gym and fitness studios’ letter.

Channel 7 News reported that in response to its request for the city’s reaction to the gym and fitness studios’ concerns, the Department of Health released a statement saying, “D.C. Health’s stance is that persons should wear masks in gyms and during this time [we] do not have plans to change our stance on this guidance.”

In his statement to the Blade, Myers said the D.C. gym and fitness studios were frustrated and disappointed that the city at this time is not open to reconsidering the mask mandate for gyms and fitness studios, many of which he said are barely surviving.

“This mandate is directly affecting the livelihoods of residents of the District, many of whom are women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ in a policy that is simply not equitable, and is steering residents away from services that can help improve the overall health of our community,” Myers said.

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