West Babylon strip club closes under town pressure

Howard Romer, owner of the Stone Hedge Pub, Howard Romer, owner of the Stone Hedge Pub, stands in front of the site on Sunrise Highway in West Babylon on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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The Stone Hedge Pub, a West Babylon strip club long viewed as a nuisance by town officials, has closed under a court order to vacate the Sunrise Highway building it occupied for 37 years.

The closure earlier this month -- the two brass dancing poles will be melted down for scrap -- was the latest in a series of legal moves based on a zoning law that shunts adult businesses to the town's industrial districts.

Town officials said Stone Hedge was in violation because it operated in a business district. So in January the club's owner, Howard Romer, 81, paid a $1,000 fine and agreed to leave, according to town officials.

Babylon Town enacted an adult use code in 1985 but enforcement was delayed by a lawsuit by the owner of a topless bar who said the law infringed on business owners' constitutionally protected right to free speech.

A 2005 settlement with the town gave businesses five years to close or move into a permitted zone. Stone Hedge was issued a summons for "non-conforming use" in 2011, town officials said. After court challenges, the company paid the fine and agreed to vacate the premises within 60 days.

Babylon Town once had about 20 adult businesses, town spokesman Kevin Bonner said. Five are still open in industrial zones where they are permitted to operate. The town is "actively pursuing" two other adult businesses he said are still operating in mixed-use zones.

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For town Supervisor Rich Schaffer, the closure is progress. For Romer, the development was bittersweet.

"I had a good life here," Romer said in an interview at the bar of the windowless, red-lit pub at 713 E. Sunrise Hwy. "I made good money, drove nice cars, sent my kids to good schools."

Schaffer said that the toll Stone Hedge and similar businesses took on the quality of life in nearby neighborhoods "heavily outweighed" whatever good they might have done for their owners and employees.

A residential neighborhood begins about 400 feet to the north of Stone Hedge's building, and the busy Hubbards Path Shopping Center sits to the east, too close for Schaffer's comfort.

"We would be better off if we didn't have any of these types of businesses," he said, adding that they'd earned a reputation as trouble spots.

Suffolk police recorded 97 incidents over the past five years at the bar or in its parking lot, not all of them criminal, according to the department. Romer said security cameras, outdoor lighting and bouncers have helped keep the peace.

Romer said he would have been out of business anyway, since Vornado Realty Trust, which owns the Stone Hedge property, did not renew his lease. A spokeswoman for Vornado Realty declined to comment.

A bartender and former dancer who said she'd worked at the club for 21 years and gave only her working name of Angela said town policy was hurting workers like her.

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"I'm a hardworking woman. We have a lot of hardworking women who do this to survive," she said.

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