Front Royal’s elected leaders say they don’t and can’t control the wave of vape shops — now at 11 — opening in town.
Mayor Lori A. Cockrell brought up the subject during Town Council’s Monday work session, saying she felt compelled to do so in response to online comments about the increasing numbers of vape-related businesses in town.
“We are just getting so much grief, through social media and just everyone, about vape shops in our town,” Cockrell said.
Vice Mayor R.Wayne Sealock and council members Melissa DeDomenico-Payne, Joshua Ingram, Amber Morris, H. Bruce Rappaport and Duane “Skip” Rogers attended the work session.
The mayor went on to say that posts and conversations on social media appear to claim that the town seeks out vape shops to open in Front Royal. Cockrell asked Planning Director Lauren Kopishke to explain where the town stands on the matter.
“We are not soliciting but we are also not discriminating against them either so vape stores fall under retail uses — they are selling a product,” Kopishke said. “We cannot discriminate against that product that they sell.
“So the recent vape stores that have come in, they have come in, they’ve gotten their zoning permit — I have no control, I have to sign off on the use,” Kopishke said. “If they fit the zoning category, they get approved.”
Morris said seven of the vape shops in town operate on South Street.
Council members addressed the subject last year, Morris recalled. The topic came up in recent conversations, she said.
“People think that council approves businesses,” Morris said. “So for the people watching at home, the people here tonight, council does not see applications for business permits.
“If you’re within the law and you apply for a business permit and you buy your building or you rent your space, we don’t see and regulate that,” Morris said. “But we did hear this last year and the reason it is coming is because they’re looking for THC [retail sales] to be legalized in the state of Virginia in the next two years and they’re in line for their permits to sell marijuana.”
The Virginia General Assembly plans to limit the number of permits in each locality for marijuana sales, Morris said.
Council members addressed the topic at their retreat last year.
“The problem that we ran into was the only thing we could do was tighten our zoning regulations because, as a pretty conservative council who also enjoys free enterprise, at what point do we start regulating businesses and ... at what point do you say ‘we just don’t like your type of business’ and it’s discriminatory,” Morris said.
Council implemented lighting regulations though some vape shops are violating those restrictions, Morris said. She said a person sent her a video of a new shop that opened in a former Pizza Hut with flashing lights, in violation of the town regulations.
Kopishke said her department sent notices to those businesses the next day after being made aware of the violations.
Vape store owners must submit permit applications for signs. Owners can display no more than three signs at the business, including posters in the windows, Kopishke said. The Planning Department through code enforcement sends notices to stores that violate the town limit on signs, she said. The town prohibits string lights and flashing lights and signs, Kopishke said.
Shops in the entrance corridor on North Shenandoah Avenue must use muted colors or seek approval for brighter hues, Kopishke said.
“I understand and we all understand free enterprise and we love it; that’s what builds this country,” Rogers said. “It bothers me that there are so many and they’re popping up in odd places, you know, and they’re popping up (at) an entrance to our community in bright colors.”
Rogers referred to a vape shop on Shenandoah Avenue that motorists can see as they travel on the U.S. 340-522 bridge west into Front Royal.
“Anyway, it’s kind of embarrassing,” Rogers said. “You gotta wonder why there’s so many of them coming in here.”
Rappaport suggested the town look into regulatory options such as strengthening its tobacco retail licensing; review fees that could help fund the cost to monitor and enforce the businesses; set a cap on the number of new licenses for such businesses based on population and geographic area; increase monitoring of shops to make sure they are not selling to underage customers; and restrict e-cigarettes and tobacco retailers from locating near schools and youth facilities.
Well known fact some of these shops are set up for money laundering. Normally the larger ones part of a chain.
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