BDSM meets ZBA: Club fails to get variance, but will try again

kt logoAn emotional appeal by more than a dozen people who say they’ve found a safe space and a community at a Kingston club catering to “alternative lifestyles” failed to sway the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday night. The board questioned whether the space was actually a sex club, before ruling that the applicants hadn’t provided enough information to justify a variance.

“Feel Me Breathe” set up shop in a former industrial space at 1-11 Sterling St. in Midtown Kingston 11 months ago. Tina Woodbury, one of three partners who run the organization, describes it as a community center for people who practice a wide variety of alternative lifestyles, including bondage, erotic discipline, domination and sadomasochism — known by the catchall acronym “BDSM” — cross-dressing and polyamory. Since opening about a year ago, the space has hosted a series of events ranging from a Valentine’s Day mixer for singles to “old world gay leather” parties. The space also hosts workshops to teach safe BDSM practices.

“I went down there one night just to see what was going on,” said Mike Piazza, who leases the space to Feel Me Breathe. “It was like Boy Scouts, they were teaching people how to tie someone up without giving them a rope burn.”

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The group’s existence, which is advertised on adult websites like Fetlife and mainstream sites like Big Gay Hudson Valley, was largely unknown to city officials, neighbors and the general public until a few months ago. According to Woodbury, one of three partners in Feel Me Breathe, she signed a lease with Piazza with the understanding that the 3,200-square-foot space already had a variance to allow for public assembly. The building is in a zone set aside for office and residential use; all other uses need a variance from the planning board. Woodbury said that she was “shocked” months later when Piazza informed her that the she would have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a public assembly variance and another variance for use of a parking lot — owned by Piazza — across the street from the club.

“Nobody knew we existed until we came here doing the right thing and asking for permits,” said Woodbury.

Not a sex club

Under questioning by members of the ZBA and city Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben, Woodbury fended off allegations that she was running a sex club at the location.  Woodbury said that she had read the section of the city code dealing with adult establishments and was confident that Feel Me Breathe did not fit the criteria. Woodbury and other club members said admittance to Feel Me Breathe was by invitation only. Attendees sign a waiver stating that they’re aware of the nature of the space and must show a valid drivers’ license. Minors are banned and so are drugs, alcohol and on-premises sex. Two sets of double doors and a hallway keep prying eyes from witnessing anything inappropriate, said another Feel Me Breathe supporter, Raith Kell. Three certified emergency medical technicians — who are also club members — are on hand at all events.

“There is a lot of protection,” said Kell. “That’s why people come, it’s a safe space.”

But Zweben and some board members alluded to the club’s web presence while questioning whether the operation would fall under the zoning code’s “adult use” provisions and thus be prohibited in a location a short distance from the Boys and Girls Club, a little league field and a park. Zweben noted pictures showing a St. Andrew’s Cross, a common accessory used in bondage play, and what appeared to be cages. Other photos purportedly taken at the club show women tied up in various states of undress and showing off bruised buttocks. Zweben also noted that a professional dominatrix had advertised private sessions at Feel Me Breathe on an adult website. (Woodbury replied that the woman in question had acted without the knowledge of the club’s owners and had been told to remove the ads.) ZBA member Matt Ryan said that the risqué vibe of the club’s web presence was at odds with the seemingly benign “community center” described in documents submitted to the planning board.

“If someone doesn’t know what you are, and you go on the website it looks like a place for people who are into bondage and S&M,” said Ryan. “What’s on this paper and what’s on that website are very different.”

A safe space, say supporters

But about a dozen of the 30 Feel Me Breathe supporters who turned out for the meeting said community, and even family, were what the club was all about. Some described feeling out of place and lonely until they discovered a community of like-minded people. They noted that club gatherings, which bring visitors from as far away as Vancouver, are an economic boon to the city’s hotels and restaurants. Others said that Feel Me Breathe provided a safe and welcoming space — shutting it down, they said, would put people at risk in less-structured and not-as-supervised situations.

“This is a place where you can come and be safe and ask questions that you can’t ask anywhere else,” said S’bina Braithwaite who told the board that she moved to the area because of Feel Me Breathe. “Knowledge is good; taking away knowledge is a horrible thing to do.”

Just one person spoke against granting the variance. James Richter said he was unaware of the club until he attended last month’s ZBA meeting. Richter said that the club was no different from an adult bookstore or movie theater and should not be allowed to operate in such close proximity to the Boys and Girls Club.

“We have enough problems in Midtown,” said Richter. “There’s a stereotype that it’s a horrible community and this just adds to it.”

In their unanimous vote to deny the variance, the board sidestepped the “adult use” issue. Instead, members focused on the documents submitted in support of the variance and concluded they were incomplete. Specifically, the board said, it needed documentation from Piazza that failure to grant the variance would present a financial hardship. One day after the board ruling, Woodbury said that she had met with Piazza and he had agreed to provide the necessary documents to complete the application. Woodbury said that she was also encouraged by the board’s reaction to the group’s appeal for tolerance.

“I feel like the board had an open heart and an open mind,” said Woodbury.

There is one comment

  1. gerald berke

    I’m surprised… interesting what some thorough news reporting can do.
    My first take was, fooey, who needs it…
    After your article, understanding the commercial building it is in, sounds much more like nice people. Except for the variance, who knew and who cared?
    Given the nature of the group, yeah, it is a whole lot easier to get forgiven than permission… the variance ought to have been gotten for a discussion group, assuming one was needed…
    Piazza may feel he is the victim of anti business, small minded, etc… I think there was a better way around that problem… did no one suspect that a BDSM assembly site would incur some resistance? Did anyone check the the ward alderman to get a feel for what might happen?
    Assuming the BDSM group drew no more attention than any other group, it seems just like bad political judgment. Regrets…
    Anyway, they can meet the requirements imposed by the board and try again.
    Thanks, KIngston Times, for a very interesting write up…

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