City council tries to clear the air on smoke shops

Visalia city council discusses updating smoke shop zoning ordinance barring operation within 1000 feet of schools, licensed daycares, libraries, parks, churches or each other, plans moratorium on all new smoke shops until new ordinance is adopted

VISALIA – Back in May, the Visalia city council upheld a permit for PRD Cigarettes to sell tobacco 400 feet from Houston Elementary. The smoke shop had previously been selling tobacco and alcohol at the same location and no longer had a liquor license—triggering a classification change to a “smoke shop” due to tobacco accounting for more than 30% of gross sales or lease area—but nonetheless the public was upset with the outcome.

“I completely understand why the residents and the school are upset about this situation,” Visalia council member Brett Taylor previously told The Sun-Gazette. “We should have done a better job of making sure it didn’t happen in the first place.”

On Nov. 15, the city council revisited the zoning ordinance related to smoke shops to discuss potential changes to help reduce land use conflicts between tobacco sales and sensitive land uses where youth congregate.

Under the new proposed ordinance, smoke shops would be limited to operating at least 1,000 feet from schools, licensed daycares, libraries, parks and churches, as well as barred from opening within 1,000 feet of each other. The ordinance will be brought back at a future council meeting for review and adoption.

Visalia has recently seen an increase in the number of requests to establish new smoke shops in town. Of the nine new smoke shop submittals through the site plan review process, four new smoke shops have slid through the current ordinance, a potential 26% increase to the current 15 active smoke shops in Visalia.

Taylor said the council plans to pass a moratorium barring any new smoke shops from opening until the new ordinance has passed, as all four of the new proposed smoke shops are within 1,000 feet of each other on Mooney Boulevard and Whitendale Avenue and consequently will be in violation of the updated ordinance.

“We don’t want to take these people out of business, we just want to make sure that they’re in the right location,” Taylor said. “They would be grandfathered in, which is why we asked to just do the moratorium on all smoke shops until we can establish our new policies.”

Taylor said about 20 students from Visalia Unified School District showed up to the Nov. 15 council meeting, and around six testified asking for help with their peers constantly vaping in the bathrooms at school.

“I was kind of shocked to see so many kids say that it openly happens everywhere,” Taylor said. “Pretty powerful that they got up at such a young age and said, ‘We don’t agree with this. We don’t like it. Please help us.’”

While the new ordinance would limit smoke shops’ proximity to sensitive areas like schools, it would not outright ban tobacco sales in those areas. The location near Houston Elementary that lit a fire under this conversation had been previously operating as a convenience store selling tobacco and alcohol, which would be allowed under the new ordinance as well.

“We looked at an outright ban, but we realized that Save Mart is right behind El Diamante. There’s tons and tons of convenience stores that are right next to high schools,” Taylor said. “There’s chicken and [snacks] and all kinds of stuff that the kids grab, so it would be virtually impossible to ban all tobacco products in these areas at places like convenience stores and grocery stores.”

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