In an effort to properly regulate legitimate massage businesses and weed out those breaking the law, city officials will begin discussions this week aimed at curtailing human trafficking while creating a better business environment. 

On Wednesday evening, the Santa Maria Planning Commission will discuss changing the permitted zoning allowances for massage parlors in the city. Then on Nov. 7, the Santa Maria City Council will discuss completely overhauling the city laws that govern massage businesses, including creating professional certification requirements.

According to city records, there are now 74 massage businesses in Santa Maria.

The Planning Commission’s discussion, set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in council chambers at City Hall, will specifically focus on zoning text amendments. 

Massage parlors are only permitted in the city’s General Commercial District (C-2), which is centered along the Broadway, Main Street and East Betteravia Road corridors.

However, staff is recommending that massage parlors be allowed in the city's Commercial Professional Office (CPO) and its Central Business (C-1) zoning areas, which include additional commercial, professional and medical office areas in the city. 

Assistant City Manager Jason Stilwell said the zoning changes are needed to allow more options for legitimate massage therapy centers to locate their businesses and, also, to bring that in line with the fact that physical therapy and other similar providers are allowed to operate in all commercial zones. 

“We realized that there was a group of businesses that were very supportive of more professionalization of the massage business. So the business community has gotten behind the effort that will strengthen the public safety and the professionalism of the massage business,” Stilwell said.

On Nov. 7, the Santa Maria City Council will continue the discussion on massage parlors during its meeting at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall.

In 2009, the state Legislature created the California Message Therapy Council (CAMTC), a private nonprofit public benefit corporation to create and implement a voluntary certification program for the massage industry.

Recent changes in state law returned the ability to control massage businesses to local municipalities, Stilwell said.

If approved, the new rules will require massage businesses to seek certification and registration with the city. The process will include education and other requirements provided by CAMTC.

“There is quite a bit of information that is required for (certification), including a list of all the people that provide massage and any business owners or managers regardless if they are massage technicians or not,” said Assistant City Attorney Phil Sinco.

The certification process is directly aimed at reducing human trafficking.

“They have to keep a list of their employees. One of the things that traffickers like to do is rotate the girls so they don’t find any attachment in the community and a way out so they keep rotating them,” Sinco said.

“That wouldn’t work," he said. "If we come in and somebody is not on the list, we can shut them down.”

Background checks will also be a part of the city certification process.

Council members will discuss specific rules of conduct for massage businesses in Santa Maria as well.

“There are operational requirements," Sinco said. "The employees have to be appropriately attired, clients have to be draped to cover the buttocks and genitals, and no condoms on site.” 

The new rules will also set minimal lighting requirements and building window tint restrictions.

Though the discussion about massage parlors will begin this week and continue next week, the two bodies will not talk about the potential cost and fees related to the program. Sinco said that will be brought back before the City Council for a later resolution before the new rules go into effect, if approved.

City leaders have been working on this effort for a few months, Stilwell said.

A series of public meetings with massage business owners in the city was held earlier this year to help craft the changes to the laws. Many of the business owners speak Mandarin, and city officials were able to communicate with all of the businesses owners that wanted to participate through the use of an interpreter.

“It is a careful weighing and balancing of the needs of the law enforcement community and the ability of legitimate practitioners to operate,” Sinco said.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.