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Massage therapist seeks bylaw change after waiver of site plan review snafu

Date: 2/7/2013

By Chris Maza

EAST LONGMEADOW — Local massage therapist Virginia Levine and property owner Christopher Buendo are planning on bringing a bylaw amendment before the town that would make massage therapy an accepted use in the commercial district.

The petitioned warrant article would be in response to a recent revelation that Levine's business, Be Here Now Therapeutic Massage, and possibly several others, are currently located in a district in which massage therapy is not an accepted use and may have to shut down.

"We're going to appeal and on Ginny's behalf, and on behalf of all legitimate massage therapists in the community, seek a bylaw change or an amendment that would allow licensed massage therapy to take place in the commercial district," Buendo told the Planning Board at their Jan. 29 meeting.

Levine, the owner of a massage business located at 280 North Main St., was informed via letter by the Planning Board that her business was not allowed in the town's commercial district.

Levine received a waiver of site plan review in May 2010, however, according to the letter, that waiver was granted by the board in error. The board did not realize when she initially applied for the waiver that the location was in the commercial district.

The location in question is owned by CDB Realty LLC, which is operated Buendo, a co-publisher of Reminder Publications.

The error came to the board's attention when Levine applied for a special permit as required through a new by-law passed at town meeting designed to cease illegal activity at massage parlors, such as the Korean Massage Therapy Center on North Main Street, which has been the subject of illegal immigration and prostitution stings.

As a result of the Planning Board's realization, Levine was informed she would have to cease operation and she would not be granted a special permit.

Levine met with the Planning Board to discuss the issue on Jan. 29, but found no relief, despite an emotional plea.

"What I respectfully request tonight is that my business be grandfathered in so that I can stay where my clients know they can find me and where I have a fantastic landlord and a great building," she said.

Levine pointed out that she is fully licensed and has a loyal client base.

"I am a healthcare professional. I am not a massage parlor," she said. "I was professional trained at one of the finest accredited massage therapy schools in the east and I'm also national board certified. I am very passionate about my work and my clients know this and that's why they come to me."

Levine also asserted that she has complied with the town's requests and has operated her business based upon their recommendations.

"I have played by the rules. Step by step I did as I was told by the town, relying on the town's expertise," she said. "I have spent the time and resources to network, advertise and set up a warm and welcoming space and become a part of this community."

Levine went on to say that the violation notification has already had an impact on her business.

Town Counsel James Donahue told the Planning Board that given the way the town's bylaws are written, neither the Planning Board, nor the Zoning Board of Appeals can do anything to help her. He added that in addition to notifying Levine, the Planning Board should notify Building Commissioner and Zoning Enforcement Officer Daniel Hellyer of a violation.

"Unfortunately, we can sympathize with the situation of the therapist, but there really is not a lot in the structure of the bylaws that the town can do other than send out these notices that there is, in fact, a violation," he said.

Donahue explained that Levine has 30 days to appeal any notice to cease operations with the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). If the ZBA were to find in favor of the town, then Levine would have to bring any further appeal before the local superior court or housing court.

During the appeals process, the business would be allowed to remain open.

"I'm not suggesting that, but that is the process that exists," he said.

It was Donahue who initially mentioned the idea of bringing the issue to town meeting.

"In the interim while all this is going on, the operator, or some other entity or individual could petition the selectmen to include at the Town Meeting a warrant article to allow massage therapy activities as a permitted use in the commercial zone," he said.

At the meeting in Levine's support were several massage therapist and business owners, as well as her clients.

During a brief recess after Levine's appointment with the board, one supporter voiced his displeasure with the board, approaching its table and saying, "This special permit was supposed to shut down the illegal business, right? Well, their business is booming and you're kicking [Levine] out."

Special permit hearings for massage therapy businesses begin on Feb. 12.