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Council backs hookah bar zoning change

Vote passes by narrow 5-4 margin, goes against planners' recommendations

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- A divided City Council narrowly backed a proposal that could allow anyone open a hookah bar in Winchester.

Members voted 5-4 at a work session Tuesday to forward to its next regular meeting a proposed change in the zoning ordinance to define such an establishment as an allowed use via conditional-use permit in certain parts of the city. City code does not currently define hookah establishments and, as a result, such a use is not allowed.

The council must still hold a final vote.

Zoning and Inspections Administrator Vincent Diem explained the privately sponsored amendment to the city ordinance comes from two businessmen who have expressed a desire to open a hookah bar to the rear of Camino Real on Berryville Avenue.

The Planning Commission earlier this month voted unanimously to recommend that the council vote against approving the proposed change, with members expressing concerns about health issues related to smoking tobacco.

The council appeared divided on the health issue.

It's president, Jeffrey Buettner, cast the swing vote, joining fellow members John Willingham, Evan Clark, Art Major and John Hill in sending the measure to council for a vote at its next regular meeting.

Mayor Elizabeth "Liz" Minor and outgoing Councilman Michael Butler said they didn't support a change that promoted smoking tobacco. Councilmen Milton F. "Milt" McInturff and Leslie "Les" Veach sided with Minor and Butler.

"Overall ... this is a bad idea for public health, period," Butler said. "We're spending billions of dollars to essentially stop this nation from smoking."

Hill said he doesn't support smoking cigarettes or other substances, but did back hookah establishments as another venue in which young people can socialize.

"I think it would be good to have something different in this town," Hill said. "I'm trying to look at it as a new opportunity, a new activity for young people."

Willingham and Clark questioned whether a hookah bar differed from shops that sell tobacco, such as John B. Hayes Tobaccanist, where customers can buy and smoke such products. In the case of a hookah bar, smoking from such a device would serve as the primary use, Diem explained. Customers don't go to a tobacco shop to sit in a lounge and smoke.

Clark said he didn't see any difference between the two kinds of businesses. Clark added that he would support the proposal based on the fact the city can't use the "method of delivery" as a basis for discriminating against a tobacco store that lets people smoke inside.

Major supported defining hookah bars, but said the city should use the conditional-use permit to set rules for such a business on a case-by-case basis. "We had an entrepreneur who came to us and said 'I have an idea for a business' and, because of their honesty and forthrightness, they're gonna get blown out of the water before they even get a chance to tell us what it is," Major said. "Had they come to you and said 'I'm opening a tobacco store,' they'd have a business license and be up and running already."

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