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Public hearing set in hookah bar zoning case

By J.R. Williams - jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- The Winchester Planning Commission will hold a public hearing Tuesday on whether to insert a zoning definition in the city code that could pave the way for the first local hookah bar.

Planners discussed the issue during a recent work session after Zoning and Inspections Administrator Vincent P. Diem described the proposal and presented a draft ordinance for their consideration.

"In looking at what his business model was, and looking at what we had in the zoning ordinance, I didn't really see a direct fit," Diem said.

Business partners Emad Khezam and Ali Tajalli, who operate the A-1 Inc. auto dealership at 934 Berryville Ave., want to open the bar in the same city block.

In a letter dated Oct. 31, they describe their bar as serving only "coffee, tea, desserts, and the hookah for smoking."

A hookah is a water pipe that stands on its own and allows the user to draw tobacco smoke through one or more tubes.

Planning Commission members had questions about the establishment and how it could be regulated. Concerns were raised about proper ventilation and whether serving food would violate state law.

They also wanted to know whether smoking legal substances other than tobacco would be allowed.

"There are a lot of questions here," said Nate L. Adams III, the panel's chairman. "I can see where the hookah can have some attractiveness ... but you have all these other issues."

Applicants have said no one under 18 would be allowed at the business, and promise in their letter to operate it "within the confines of, and with every respect to, the laws of the State of Virginia and the City of Winchester."

The draft ordinance would require a business owner wishing to open a hookah bar to submit a request for a special-use permit, which would allow the city to impose restrictions.

The ordinance also states no hookah establishment could exist within 500 feet of a similar establishment, a public or private school, a playground or park, even if allowed by issuing a conditional-use permit.

Diem said he would provide other members of the panel with a PowerPoint presentation by the University of Maryland School of Law titled, "Confronting the Emerging Threat of Hookah Bars."

Prepared for the "Access 2008: Building a Tobacco-Free Future" conference held in Seattle, the presentation defines hookahs and recommendations regulations for the establishments.

"We can provide the residents of the City of Winchester a safe and lawful environment in which to enjoy socializing and smoking the hookah, without the necessity of traveling 50-plus miles in order to do so," the applicants' letter states.

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