Dancing with ourselves

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Orange County's assault on Central Florida nightlife brought out the public for a boisterous Feb. 13 hearing, but by that time the terms already had changed.

The main topic was Chairman Rich Crotty's "dance hall" moratorium. As expected, hoards of young ravers flocked to the afternoon County Commission meeting -- some bussed in by a local radio station -- to protest what they saw as an all-out affront to their right to dance.

And with good reason: The nine-month moratorium Crotty proposed last week targeted any place with so much as a dance floor, making it easy for pundits (including us) to ridicule. By the hearing, however, the ordinance had mutated.

No longer was it a "dance hall" moratorium. Indeed, everywhere the words "dance hall" appeared in the ordinance they were crossed out and replaced with "places of late-night entertainment." After all, as Crotty said all week, the ordinance wasn't about dancing.

So what was it about? Quite simply, making sure the proposed Venus & Mars Deluxe complex at state roads 436 and 50 just east of Orlando would never open. Residents of nearby Azalea Park had complained the new club would add to the problems of "heroin alley." Though county attorneys insisted the club wasn't a target -- which would be unconstitutional -- no other clubs would be affected by the moratorium. And if the original ordinance had remained, attorney Irby Pugh told the commission, Venus & Mars probably would have folded.

But in overhauling the ordinance, Crotty practically ensured that Venus & Mars could open. The moratorium affects only clubs open between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Venus & Mars' operators, however, already had met two weeks earlier with county officials to hammer out an agreement that the club would close at 2 a.m.

Thus, the Feb. 13 public hearing became less about the moratorium and more a several-hours-long forum on Central Florida's drug problems. Parents lamented their dead children; ex-addicts warned about the evils of the rave scene; ravers tried to prove that they weren't evil. Then there were the preachers -- at least four of them -- warning of a generation going to hell in a handbasket.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the moratorium, which had been reduced to 60 days. Prior to the vote, only two commissioners, Ted Edwards and Bob Sindler, appeared the least bit concerned with questions of constitutionality.

In a less ballyhooed move, the commission also sought to amend the county's Alcohol Beverage Code, ostensibly to clarify the county's powers. In reality, though, the amendments took aim at Aura, the more mainstream reincarnation of Cyberzone, by forcing "bottle clubs" to close at 2 a.m. Once it opens, Aura will be the only bottle club in Central Florida.

Mark NeJame, an attorney for club owner Dan Davis, expected the commission to approve the amendments. And then he expected Davis to sue.

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