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Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 22, 2013

Palo Alto looks to ban smoking at all small parks

City Council committee votes to prohibit smoking at every park smaller than 5 acres

by Gennady Sheyner

More than half of Palo Alto parks would become smoke-free zones under a law change that a City Council committee abruptly proposed Tuesday night, March 19.

The council's Policy and Services Committee was scheduled to consider a smoking ban in only three parks — Lytton Plaza and Cogswell Plaza in downtown and Sarah Wallis Park in the California Avenue Business District. But as soon as the discussion began, committee Chair Liz Kniss proposed adding Johnson Park in Downtown North; Councilwoman Karen Holman argued that Scott Park on Channing Avenue should also join the list; and Councilwoman Gail Price made a case for Juana Briones Park.

Within minutes, the conversation turned to banning smoking at all parks smaller than 5 acres. After a brief discussion, all four committee members agreed to stretch the new ban well beyond the three parks proposed by staff.

After Kniss reminded her colleagues of the old aphorism, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Councilman Larry Klein proposed that rather than singling out specific parks to be banned, the city should create a broader ban and specify which parks would not be included.

"I'm worried we may be leaving out parks that in their profile don't look very much different than Briones and Johnson," Klein said.

The committee agreed and decided to apply the new policy to all 22 city parks that are smaller than 5 acres.

The committee also voted unanimously to expand the existing no-smoking buffer zone around enclosed public places, such as restaurants and stores, from 20 feet to 25 feet.

Staff had proposed the more limited ban because of complaints from residents and downtown businesses. According to a staff report, these complaints mainly involved "environmental quality, litter, fire safety or a combination thereof." A prohibition at the downtown parks, the report stated, is expected to "reduce litter and enhance the enjoyment of the park facilities for shoppers, visitors and residents of the downtown and California Avenue commercial areas."

But the main reason for the ban is the impact of smoking on public health. The United States Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 443,000 deaths in the United States are attributable to tobacco every year and 49,000 of them are attributed to secondhand smoking.

Kniss said that while she isn't aware of complaints from the public about smoking downtown, the public-health argument is compelling enough to warrant the new ban, which the full council will have to sign off on before it becomes official.

"The council is a guardian of the public health of the community, and I'd say this is appropriate," Kniss said of the broader ban.

Holman said she would support banning smoking in every park, large and small, though neither she nor any of her colleagues were prepared to expand the item that far Tuesday night. The committee was concerned about the fact that the meeting agenda and the staff report only talked about imposing the ban at three parks.

As it is, the ban would apply to more than half of the city's parks. Community Services Director Greg Betts said Palo Alto has 34 parks and four open-space preserves. Some of the latter have their own restrictions. Foothills Park, for example, prohibits smoking on trails but allows it in the meadows and picnic areas, Betts said.

The committee's vote was just the latest in the city's multi-year consideration of new smoking laws. In October 2008, the Parks and Recreation Commission voted 5-2 not to change the law, reasoning that the existing ordinance is fine the way it is. And last year, the Policy and Service Committee directed staff to consider a broader smoking prohibition despite a statement from Klein at that time that smoking has become a non-issue in Palo Alto in recent decades.

Since 2008, other neighboring cities have proceeded with their own smoking rules. According to the staff report, Campbell, Cupertino, Mountain View, Saratoga and Los Gatos have all adopted ordinances that ban smoking in certain public areas.

On Tuesday, the committee had few reservations. Within half an hour, members agreed that the small-parks smoking ban is the way to go and recommended that the full City Council pass the ordinance.

"In principle, I like the idea of being a little more assertive on this item," Price said minutes before the vote.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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