Until recently, the last time the city of Paso Robles weighed in on where fortunetelling and psychics were and weren’t allowed to set up shop was in the late 1950s.
Since then, people who make a living by offering astrological or tarot card readings, psychic services, or as mediums—a wide and complex field characterized by city zoning code as “fortunetellers, psychics, and related services”—could only legally operate on a stretch along Riverside Avenue.
That zoning code is now getting overhauled after a downtown shop owner has shown an interest in filing a business license for those services. So far, the permissive zoning area has expanded some, but the activities in question still aren’t allowed in the downtown area or in any zone designated as a gateway to the city, such as the interchange between Highways 46 and 101.
Before allowing the services downtown, the city wanted to first check to see if the downtown business community had any significant concerns.
As for the gateway area, an issue of fairness has prevented any rezoning for fortunetelling, as the issue has followed too closely on the heels of a recent dispute that involved the area’s rezoning, said Ed Gallagher, the city’s community development director. In July, the gateway was an overarching factor in a public tiff between the owners of a cardroom, who wanted to relocate their business from a side street in northern Paso Robles to Ramada Drive near Highway 46, and an owner of the Firestone Walker Brewing Co., which also operates on Ramada Drive. The council denied the zoning necessary for the cardroom’s relocation on the grounds that it wasn’t an appropriate use for the gateway area.
As for fortunetellers and psychics, the restrictive zoning seems to be a relic from the past, revisited now that a downtown shop that functions as a gift shop, gallery, and center for healing would like to expand services.
Gigi Trebatoski, a medium and intuitive healer who recently moved to the area from Wisconsin, is among those interested in operating downtown.
At the Nov. 18 Paso Robles City Council meeting, Trebatoski told the council that the profession has changed dramatically since it was last addressed in the community.
“There’s been a lot of work over the last few decades to professionalize these services,” Trebatoski said, underscoring the value of providing various ways to deal with grief, life changes, and transitional times.
Trebatoski told New Times that restrictions such as the one on the books in Paso Robles come from the post-World War II period and the subsequent onset of the Cold War. The United States saw a heavy influx of eastern European refugees, a group that became the object of suspicion and discrimination. Enter the stereotypical image of Gypsies and palm readers.
“[Many communities at the time] associated tarot, astrology, and fortune telling with the Gypsies, and they associated it with groups of people running in and scamming people,” Trebatoski said.
Before that period, in the 1920s, people known as stage mediums, who were somewhat similar to Christian-based faith healers, were notorious for scamming people.
Since those days, Trebatoski said, mediums, astrologers, fortunetellers, and others working in the metaphysical realm have made progress in doing away with prohibitive laws. Activist mediums campaigned in England to repeal anti-witchcraft laws, colleges for mediumship have been opening on the East Coast and in England, and institutions are established to train people in tarot and astrology.
There have also been legal decisions on the matter. A 1985 ruling by the Supreme Court of California found that the city of Azusa was unlawfully limiting free speech with an ordinance banning fortunetelling and psychic businesses in the city. (The ordinance read: “No person shall practice or profess to practice or engage in the business or art of astrology, augury, card or tea reading, cartomancy, clairvoyance, crystalgazing, divination, fortune telling, hypnotism, magic, mediumship, necromancy, palmistry, phrenology, prophecy, or spiritual reading, or any similar business or art, who either solicits or receives a gift or fee or other consideration for such practice, or where admission is charged for such practice.”)
The court’s ruling considered fortune telling to be protected under free speech, because they are trading in opinion, rather than what the city argued was more formal “commercial speech,” ruling that “if we were to accept the City’s theory, a lecture for or against Marxism, abortion, nuclear power, or racial supremacy would be commercial speech if people paid an admission charge to hear it, because the lecture would complete the transaction. Such a result would be unprecedented and untenable … under either rationale, fortunetelling deserves protection.” The court was also unwilling to differentiate fortunetellers from other professions that may be more socially accepted: “It must also be noted that there are many persons other than professional fortunetellers who purport to predict the future: e.g., astrology columnists in daily newspapers, economists who prognosticate interest rates and other business conditions, investment counsellors who forecast stock market trends, sportswriters and oddsmakers who predict the winners of athletic contests, horserace handicappers, pollsters who forecast election returns, and clergymen who describe the concept of a hereafter.”
While this legal precedent may be a standing factor, it probably won’t be a factor in Paso Robles. The community has so far shown a willingness to update these laws by their own volition.
“It was obvious that the code for this type of business was far outdated,” said Paso Roble Mayor Steve Martin.
The Paso City Council was ready to accommodate the businesses when it changed the zoning rules in October, though it opted to spend more time working out a few details. Council members expressed concerns that being too permissive may result in streets dotted with signs for palm readers and psychics. The council also wanted to make sure the downtown community wouldn’t be irked by the presence of metaphysical practitioners near their wine tasting rooms and restaurants.
After the Paso Robles Downtown Main Street Association took input from member businesses, the organization wrote a letter to the city with welcoming words.
The council will revisit the topic in early 2015, Martin said, and consider allowing the activities downtown.
Through the process, Trebatoski has reassured community members that the profession is generally pretty low key, and work is conducted in back or side rooms within shops like EarthTones.
“For the most part, we shy away from having these big shops, advertising psychic palm readings, ‘come in here,’” Trebatoski said. “It’s not the way most people in this profession do their business anymore.”
Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay