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FairfaxBusinessVienna mulls more oversight of massage establishments

Vienna mulls more oversight of massage establishments

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The Vienna Town Council is considering modifying town code to tighten up licensing and enforcement provisions for massage salons and other establishments that perform that service.

Council member Ray Brill Jr. requested that Town Attorney Steven Briglia provide possible town-code amendments to address the proliferation of massage establishments in Vienna and its surroundings, as well as possible illegal activity at unlicensed businesses.

Council member Charles Anderson also participated in the discussions and let his overarching goal be known at the Council’s June 13 work session.

“I want to make Vienna an unattractive place for these types of establishments,” he said. “I don’t care if they go to other places in Northern Virginia . . . I don’t think it fits with what our concept of Vienna is.”

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About 100 massage parlors operate in Fairfax County, generating business worth roughly $26 million, added Council member Steve Potter.

Vienna has its own licensing and permitting rules for massage salons, health clubs and other businesses that perform massages. Other jurisdictions in the region have been boosting their monitoring of such businesses.

Area localities were cooperating and running task forces to combat illegal massage operations, but many of those efforts – like so much else – stopped during the pandemic and some jurisdictions have not restarted them, Vienna officials said.

Briglia’s proposed amendments – some of which come from Fairfax County, which also is rewriting its rules – would take out a reference to health clubs and substitute massage-therapy establishments and services.

“If you’re giving a massage, it doesn’t matter where it’s happening,” Briglia said.

New massage businesses must get operating permits from the town and Briglia’s modified code language calls for a $500 fee, plus $150 for each employee working as a masseur, masseuse or massage therapist at the establishments.

The fees reflect considerable staff time devoted to performing background checks, Briglia said.

Those operators and employees also would have to disclose all massage establishments that they had owned or worked at during the past three years, and list whether and why their permits or licenses had been revoked or suspended.

The proposed code language makes clear that Vienna officials will visit the businesses randomly to ensure they are properly licensed, Briglia said.
“Currently, it’s basically just an annual license that’s automatically renewed,” he said, adding that the modified code would place a one-year expiration date on such licenses.

Operators then would have to renew their licenses and again show which people are working there, with background checks only required for new personnel, Briglia said.

The draft language also would require massage establishments to leave their front doors unlocked during regular business hours, Brill said. Permits would become void if establishments transferred ownership, he said.

Vienna officials have not decided yet which town department primarily would be responsible for monitoring massage businesses.

Briglia recommended against having town police take the primary compliance role, because many of the necessary reviews are administrative. The town government regularly gives businesses the chance to rectify mistakes, but violations that continue may necessitate police involvement, he said.
The extra enforcement effort likely will require some additional staffing, said Town Manager Mercury Payton.

Vienna police conduct background investigations for owners of massage establishments and their employees who give massages.

The Vienna Police Department, using a variety of Internet sources, knows which massage businesses are problematical, said Vienna Police Chief James Morris.

“We’re focusing on getting them into compliance” with existing rules, “so we at least know they’re there and what they’re doing,” he said.

A task force consisting of town police and Vienna financial and planning-and-zoning staff already has found success by having one massage business, which was well-known to police, follow the rules, Morris said. Many such establishments in town are aboveboard, he added.

Regarding an ordinance, “you probably do need something with more teeth into it, because there is some confusion as to who enforces what,” Morris said. “The minute we go in, it’s the big hammer, the big police presence.”

In order to clear up final responsibilities and ordinance language, and ensure proper legal advertising, the Council likely will not take up the proposed town-code changes for massage establishments until August.

The Council for now will not consider requiring conditional-use permits for those businesses, instead of allowing them by-right.

Requiring conditional-use permits would force applicants to submit to a review by the Vienna Planning Commission and approval by the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), said Deputy Planning and Zoning Director Michael D’Orazio, who was attending his last Council meeting before departing for another job.

Massage establishments previously were allowed via conditional-use permit, but that changed with Council decisions in 2000 and 2012 to allow such uses by-right in commercial and industrial areas, D’Orazio said.

The Vienna BZA recommended that massage establishments be allowed by-right because they do not generate more noise or traffic impact on the community, Briglia said.

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