Local massage therapists, struggling to be recognized as professionals, are throwing support behind County Councilman George Bachman's bill to stamp out controversial massage parlors.

The nine-page bill,to be introduced at tonight's council meeting, was spawned by controversy over two North County massage parlors, where police saw female masseuses manually stimulating male clients. That activity is not covered under solicitation laws, so police could not take action.

Though both massage parlors have been closed for zoning violations, the Democratic councilman from Linthicum is worried that other massage operators will take advantage of the loophole in the solicitation law.

Bachman's bill would require massage establishments, managers and technicians that fall under the proposed legislation to be licensed by the Department of Inspections and Permits.

It would make it illegal for masseuses to touch "erogenous areas," specifically, the breasts, genitals and anal area. The bill requires clients to coverthese parts of the body during the massage and prohibits masseuses from working on members of the opposite sex.

The legislation also requires masseuses and managers of massage operations to have at least100 hours of training from a nationally recognized institution. Theymust be at least 18 years old and submit to medical and criminal background checks.

"It's going to be very restrictive," Bachman said.

But the bill protects "legitimate" massage therapists, he said.

It exempts medical professionals -- including massage technicians with more than 500 hours of training, even though massage technicians are not recognized or licensed by the state. The state recognizes only licensed physical therapists as qualified to perform massage.

Anne Arundel is treating massage therapists differently because "generally people with 500 hours are legitimate massage practitioners. They're not out there taking advantage of the public," said Assistant County Attorney Gail Watson, who helped draft the bill.

Mary C. Berry,an Annapolis massage therapist, said the bill represents a huge stepforward for the local massage industry, whose problem is two-fold. It must fight the state and other medical professionals for recognition and it constantly struggles not to be confused with operations likethe closed North County parlors.

Berry said county massage therapists -- estimated by her to number between 70 and 120 -- are thrilledbecause Bachman's bill helps them on both fronts.

Most legitimatemassage therapists have the 500 hours of training required for exemption, she said. The 15,000-member American Massage Therapy Association, which regulates the industry, is expected to create a national 500-hour standard soon, she said.

If anything, Berry said, the training requirements in the proposed legislation are too lax. Most serioustherapists prefer a minimum requirement of 150 or 250 hours.

Except for the prohibition on working on members of the opposite sex, theproposed restrictions should not affect legitimate therapists who have not yet attained 500 hours of training, Berry said.

Massage therapists always drape the client with a sheet or towel, exposing only the part of the body being massaged, she said. And they never use erogenous stimulation.

"That's totally demeaning to us who are professionals. We don't do that kind of work," Berry said. "We get phone calls all the time from people who say, 'I'd like to get a massage. What else can I expect?' Every time that happens, it takes the starch right out of our shirts. It's a very uncomfortable situation for us."

If the bill passes, Anne Arundel would be the first jurisdiction besides Ocean City to recognize trained massage therapists as professionals.

Massage laws in Montgomery and Prince George's counties require any massage therapist, regardless of training, to submit to fingerprinting, health screening and police background checks. No one in those counties may give a massage to a member of the opposite sex.

A public hearing on the massage bill is scheduled for Sept. 16. Representatives of the massage industry are expected to attend, Berry said.

Also tonight, the council will vote on a bill that would allow tree-planting money to be used to buy woodlands and replant shoreline grass.

The bill, sponsored by Councilwomen Diane R. Evans, R-Arnold, and Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, is expected to pass.

The money is collected from developers who build within 1,000 feet of tidal wetlands or shoreline, called a "critical area."

The county has $720,000 in the 3-year-old fund but hasn't planted any trees, because it hasn't found any appropriate sites.

If the bill passes, it must be reviewed by the state Critical Areas Commission, which may reject any measure that does not meet state law.

The council had been expected to consider legislation from County Executive Robert R. Neall designed to cut down on unsightly signs.

Friday afternoon, however, Neall reconsidered and decided to study the issue further. Spokeswoman Louise Hayman said the bill would be introduced at the council's next legislative session, in October.

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