|By Chris Maza
The special permit hearing for Korean Massage Therapy Center on North Main Street, pictured here, was continued after several issues presented themselves at the Feb. 12 Planning Board meeting.
Reminder Publications file photo
EAST LONGMEADOW The Planning Board continued its special permit hearing with the owner of Korean Massage Therapy Center and her attorney in an attempt to allow them to clear up discrepancies in the application as well as to allow the board to do further research.
Gye-Hwa Shin, the primary applicant, and her attorney Robert Ward were the last to appear at a lengthy meeting during which the Planning Board approved seven special permit applications and continued the hearings on the rest of the 14 applicants on Feb. 12.
Ward, speaking for Shin, who only occasionally attempted to answer direct questions in soft, broken English, stated Korean Massage's case for a special permit, in spite of multiple police actions in recent years and allegations of prostitution, illegal immigration and license violations at the massage parlor located at 611 North Main St.
Planning Board Director George Kingston told Reminder Publications after the hearing that the board allowed the continuance to March 26 in order for all parties to perform its due diligence after multiple questions emerged that could not be answered that night.
"Their lawyer brought up some issues that were not brought before the board before and we felt we needed to do additional research," he said. "We have to make sure that any action we take is defensible. If we were to deny the special permit application, the next stop would be land court and we want to make sure that if it should come to that that we could defend our position."
Kingston added that he could not speak to the impressions of other board members and a denial was not a foregone conclusion and Shin "could convince us they've cleaned up their act."
The allegations of illegal activity were the primary reason why the Board of Selectmen brought forth a warrant article at the May 21, 2012 Annual Town Meeting, which was approved, that now requires all licensed massage businesses to obtain a special permit.
"The rest of the businesses are quite legitimate," Kingston said. "The question is whether or not [Korean Massage] is a legitimate massage businesses. It has been raided in the past and obviously we have questions."
Not the least of those questions is Shin's residency. With the special permit application, Shin produced a license for a solo massage establishment from the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure and Ward said she would be the sole licensed massage therapist. She also included a massage therapist license with an address in Flushing, N.Y., and a Michigan driver's license.
"What we're trying to determine is whether or not anyone is living at 611 North Main St.," Kingston said. "In the past, under the same management, there have been people living in the building, which is not allowed because it is not a residential building. We are trying to find some proof that they would be living somewhere around here."
Ward said that while Massachusetts state law requires anyone living in the state for more than a month to obtain a driver's license, Massachusetts doesn't allow an individual to hold a drivers license if they have one in another state, preventing Shin from producing in-state identification.
Kingston told Ward that they would accept some sort of utility bill as proof of residence. Instead, Ward offered a letter from Shin's landlord as evidence of residency, then later offered letters sent to the address and a bill for a cell phone with a New York phone number.
"I've talked with [Planning Director Robyn] Macdonald and suggested that was in lieu of a Massachusetts ID," Ward said. "You cannot obtain a Massachusetts ID card, which we tried to do because it is prohibited by law as long as you have another license."
He further stated that Shin's primary residence was in Michigan and the fact that she does not live in Massachusetts permanently doesn't prevent her from living and working in the state.
"It's like President Obama is from Hawaii, I believe, but lives in the White House," Ward said.
Kingston told Ward that in addition to the state identification issue, it was his understanding of state law that residency was established once an individual lived in the state for six months and one day, but that was an issue he would have to address with Town Counsel James Donahue.
Board member Ralph Page also said he hoped it was clear that any employee, including a receptionist, would need to provide identification to the town.
The other issue that the board wished to research was that of Asian body works. The application stated that a second person would be working at the facility performing Tui Na, a form of Asian body works, which Ward said did not require a license.
Planning Board member Michael Pryzbylowicz asked what the difference between massage and Asian body works was, to which Ward paused, then said he didn't know.
"We did some research and 'Asian body works' is kind of a catch-all term that covers a lot of different things ranging from stones and crystals to acupuncture," Kingston said. "What we learned is that the law does not exempt it if it involves massage."
According to Dorland's Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers, Tui Na is "a Chinese system of massage, acupoint stimulation, and manipulation using forceful maneuvers, including pushing, rolling, kneading, rubbing, and grasping, sometimes in conjunction with acupuncture."
Kingston also questioned why the establishment had four massage beds if only one licensed therapist would be working there.
Ward replied, "It's like my house. I am married and I have four bedrooms. My children have grown and gone away. I don't occupy [their rooms], but I might have company. In that particular case, they would like to expand; they would like to add another massage therapist, or another two or another three. As business grows, they would like to be poised to do so, but right now they don't use those facilities."
Kingston added that based on the condition of the parking lot, he found it hard to believe that only one person was working at the facility.
Macdonald also said that Board of Public Works member Daniel Burack, the owner of the building in which Korean Massage operates, did not sign the application with a notary. Ward originally said he thought the notary clause was for the owner of the business, not the building, which Macdonald told him was not true.
Ward responded by saying that he was a notary and witnessed the signature and that he would notarize the document, a move to which Kingston objected, stating it would be illegal to do so.
At that point, Kingston suggested the hearing be continued in order to give both sides time to resolve their issues.
For other massage therapists in town, the continuation was a frustrating move.
"It's the fact that they have had people in there knowing they are doing illegal activity and they haven't been able to shut them down," Stephanie Reid of Elite Image Salon and Spa said. "Yet those of us who pay our taxes, work here, have been in business here for many, many years are being penalized to get them out and yet they're still not out. Now they're going to be able to continue doing this for another month and a half without things happening."
Vivian Bresnitz, owner of Well-Being Therapeutic Massage, echoed those sentiments.
"We legal, well-trained, appropriate massage therapists that do the work that we say we are doing are being punished. We have to jump through the hoops because of a business that is known to be illegal and is known to do work that is not massage therapy, that's for sure," she said.
Erin Prystowski of People's Massage said she couldn't understand why it is taking East Longmeadow so long to shut down a business previously tied to illegal activities when other surrounding communities have been able to do so quickly.
"Since this whole thing has been going on, every other town has been able to shut these places down," she said. "In Longmeadow, the place across from Armata's, was shut down. Hadley, that Jane's place, shut down. The one in West Springfield, all these other communities were able to shut these businesses down. Why not here?"
Chinese Massage in Longmeadow, Jane's Spa and Hadley Massage in Hadley and an unnamed massage parlor in West Springfield were among those raided along with Korean Massage in a coordinated effort by local and state police in 2009.
Bresnitz added that the existence of the business casts a shadow over all massage therapists in town.
"The whole thing is ludicrous and frankly, it's an insult to my profession . To use massage therapy as a guise for that, it's just unnerving to say the least," she said.
Ward refused to talk on the record with the media after the hearing, but briefly engaged with Bresnitz in a heated discussion during which he denied any wrong-doing by Shin.
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