Livingston council delays smoke shops decision

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 2, 2013 

— The City Council took action to block two smoke shops from opening in downtown Livingston by placing a 45-day hold on issuing their business licenses during a closed-session meeting last month.

The council voted 4-1 in favor of placing the 45-day moratorium, with Councilman David Mendoza voting against the item. City leaders say the 45 days will give staff time to review the city’s ordinance dealing with smoke shops and clarify its policies on where such businesses can be located.

The decision resulted in one of the two business owners deciding to locate elsewhere, and the other said Monday he’s considering not doing business in Livingston.

The city isn’t trying to stunt new business growth, City Manager Jose Ramirez said, but officials want public input and more time to analyze the city’s policies.

“The idea was to put a moratorium and basically have staff do more research,” Ramirez said. “We’re not saying it’s illegal. It’s really an opportunity to hear from the community as to whether or not there needs to be clarification on the rules and regulations.”

City Attorney Jose Sanchez said Monday that the city doesn’t have an ordinance in place that regulates smoke shops, though it does have requirements for shops selling tobacco. Because smoke shops often sell equipment such as glass pipes and hookahs, Sanchez said, other regulations might be needed.

City staff also might consider how close a smoke shop can be to a school or another smoke shop. The Planning Commission will review such policies and make a recommendation to the City Council.

The public will have an opportunity to comment at both the Planning Commission and City Council meetings.

Livingston received proposals from two shops within weeks of one another, one called Up in Smoke and the other The Smoke Shop. Although unrelated, both owners indicated they wanted to open near Main and B streets downtown.

The applications caught the attention of Police Chief Ruben Chavez, who’s one of the department heads that must sign off on the permit, and he brought the issue to the city manager.

“I’m very supportive of the business,” Chavez said, “it’s just a matter of the location. The direction that the city manager and council want for the downtown area, it didn’t seem to fit that model.”

A team of architects from the American Institute of Architects assessed Livingston earlier this year, suggesting how to create a culture and arts district downtown. The council proposed $800,000 for downtown revitalization in its yet-to-be-approved budget.

“I think it depends on what type of clientele will come to the smoke shop,” Chavez added. “It’s hard for me to say if it’s a public safety issue, but it’s something we want to look at more.”

Mendoza, who voted against the 45-day moratorium, said he’s worried about chasing businesses away.

“I don’t want them to extend it and extend it, then it’s six months to a year and no one wants to come to town,” Mendoza said. “We need the tax revenue right now. These stores are everywhere. It’s not like they are just coming to Livingston.”

One of the two proposed smoke shops will terminate its new lease in Livingston and move to Ceres or Modesto, according to its owner.

“That 45-day hold is putting us behind,” said Ramandeep Singh Bansal, 24, who wanted to open Up in Smoke on B Street. The Turlock resident said he owns another smoke shop in Ceres. “There’s no other smoke shop in Livingston, so I thought the community would need one instead of traveling to other cities. To have to wait another 45 days is ridiculous.”

Modesto resident Rafael Alvarez, 38, proposed opening The Smoke Shop on Main Street. He said Monday that 45 days is too long to wait, and he’ll be meeting with officials from Oakdale to discuss opening a shop there.

“My reaction is that it’s too much time, because I need to open the store already,” Alvarez said through a translator. He said he planned to move his home to Livingston if the business got approved. “It’s kind of surprising because there are other shops that sell tobacco in Livingston. If I find another city to put the store, I might cancel the (Livingston) application.”

Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra said the City Council doesn’t take issue with selling tobacco, but the other items inside a smoke shop could be a different story.

“Everybody has the right to apply for a license and open a business, we’re not against that,” Samra said. “It’s not just the smoke shops, it’s the stuff they sell inside the shop. Most of the council felt, myself included as a parent, that we know what those pipes are going to be used for.”

City Attorney Sanchez said the city will likely extend the 45-day moratorium because it’s “impossible” to craft an ordinance and go through the entire approval process in that time. “It would at least need three months and that is if you had the ordinance drafted already,” Sanchez said.

The law allows the city two more extensions: one for 10 months and 15 days, and a second extension for one year. The extensions cannot exceed a total of two years, Sanchez said.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2477.

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