Clark County drafts ordinance targeting illegitimate massage parlors

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Clark County is looking to flex its regulatory muscle and put the clamp on illicit massage businesses.

The county has completed a draft ordinance that would require businesses that hire massage therapists to prove their employees are state-licensed before issuing a certificate of occupancy.

"We want to make sure we have something available for law enforcement or code enforcement, or whomever," said Jeff Niten, a county planner. "We want to make sure they have tools available."

The county's typical certificate of occupancy costs $97. The draft ordinance would not add another fee on top of that, but it would target massage therapists and reflexologists for extra scrutiny and wouldn't grant business occupancy unless massage businesses could prove they were above board by supplying all relevant state-issued licenses and certificates.

Commissioners have strongly supported the efforts, saying they want to prevent illicit activity from taking root on county land. At the same time, they say such an ordinance needs to be mindful not to punish legitimate businesses.

The county has reported generally positive feedback from existing massage businesses that have been consulted about the proposal.

"You have to get the balance on this," Commissioner David Madore said, "Legitimate businesses welcome this."

The code includes several exemptions that are intended to keep legitimate businesses operating. Notably, the exemptions apply to athletic trainers, massage therapy students, hospitals and licensed beauty operators working out of salons.

Niten said the county had worked to ensure existing, legitimate businesses wouldn't be affected by the ordinance.

"They are looking to protect their reputations, too," Niten said. "They don't want to be associated with this type of activity."

The county's draft ordinance stems from complaints about a Shumway neighborhood massage business that was suspected of housing illegal activity. That business was the focus of a Vancouver Police Department investigation. Before it closed in January, the owner of the massage parlor, Hui "Steven" Zhu, proclaimed his innocence. Police allegedly found a woman practicing reflexology there without a license during an unannounced inspection. The crime is a misdemeanor.

In April, Vancouver police opened an investigation into another massage business, located in the Arnada neighborhood. It was suspected of operating as a brothel.

The incidents, and neighborhood requests, sent the county looking for ways to regulate the industry. Three Shumway neighbors requested city and county action. They were Lisa Ghormley, Michele Wollert and Vancouver City Councilwoman Anne McEnerny-Ogle.

Ghormley said she'd received "very positive support from the county," but added she was still concerned about the "multi-layered" issues surrounding illicit massage businesses, including human trafficking.

"It's surprising to me how lax the licensing is," she said.

The county says there have been no incidents of illicit massage activity in unincorporated land. The draft ordinance is intended to prevent any such business from operating in the first place, Niten said.

The county had looked at a similar ordinance in Thurston County before starting from scratch after determining that ordinance, written in the 1970s, was outdated.

The county's ordinance could go before the commissioners as early as July, Nitten said.