Palo Alto struck another blow against tobacco on Monday night, when the City Council decreed that every apartment building in the city will soon be no-smoke zones.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council approved an ordinance banning smoking at all multi-unit residences and common areas. The law comes with a one-year implementation timeframe for outreach and education. Starting on Jan. 1, 2018, landlords and sellers of condominium units will have to give written notices to tenants and buyers about the the smoking ban. Landlords will also be required to include smoking prohibitions as a term in their rental agreements.
In addition to backing the new smoking ban, the council agreed on Monday to establish a permitting program for tobacco retailers. The program would be largely administered by Santa Clara County, which already operates such a system in its own jurisdiction. The Palo Alto Police Department will still be responsible for enforcing laws on underage smoking.
While most council members supported the program, Councilman Cory Wolbach voiced some objections. Wolbach said that while he is very much in favor of "limiting the ability of one person to harm another via second-hand smoke," he was far less excited about restricting people's access to things that harm only themselves. And while he supported the ban on smoking in multi-unit buildings, he voted against the new licensing program, which will require the city's 29 tobacco sellers to pay annual permit fees of $425.
The retail-permit program also creates new barriers for would-be tobacco retailers. It prohibits permits from being dished out to any retail location within 500 feet of another tobacco retailer (the county program includes grandfathering provisions for tobacco retailers that have been operating since January 2011 and for retailers that sell electronic smoking devices and that had been open since August 2014; Palo Alto's ordinance would similarly include a grandfathering provision for retailers operating before the new law is enacted). In addition, the law prevents permits from transferring when a retail operation changes ownership.
Not everyone was thrilled about the change. Mike Amidi, who recently bought the Valero gas station on San Antonio Road, said that because of the ordinance he'd lose his ability to sell tobacco. That's because his business is located within 500 feet of another gas station that cells cigarettes and, under the permit program, the first person to transfer ownership loses the tobacco-retail permit. The value of his store would be "seriously diminished," Amidi said, if the permitting requirements were adopted..
"We did not invest blindly here," he said. "We researched and planned before investing here. We knew all the rules and regulations before we invested and the city approved our station, knowing we'd sell tobacco."
Councilwoman Karen Holman joined Wolbach in dissent against the permitting requirement and urged staff to perform outreach to area businesses before the new ordinance is adopted. She also wondered whether the new permit fees would prove onerous for some retailers.
But six of the eight council members favored moving ahead with the county-administered permitting program (The council is reduced to eight members for the remainder of the year because of former Councilman Marc Berman's election to the state Assembly). Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff both strongly advocated for the new regulations on tobacco.
"This is what 'healthy cities' means," sad Scharff, citing one of the council's official 2016 priorities. "It means passing a tobacco retailer ordinance and moving forward with multi-family housing."
Councilman Eric Filseth concurred. While acknowledging that there would be some impacts on retailers, nevertheless supported adopting the new restrictions and licensing program.
"We're right to really ponder and look at all the ramifications and issues of economics associated with this, but the bottom line is: The stuff kills people."
While the licensing requirement generated some debate, the proposal to ban smoking in multi-family homes breezed through. Several residents urged the council to move ahead with the ban. Marc Prensky, who recently moved to Palo Alto from Manhattan, said he lives in what's supposed to be a non-smoking multi-family dwelling. But the landlord has allowed someone to smoke and, as a result, the building has a lot of second-hand smoke, Prensky said.
"I think they would be amenable to doing more if such an ordinance was in place," Prensky said. "We have a young child who is exposed to second-hand smoke."
He is hardly alone. Last year, the city surveyed more than 500 residents in apartment complexes. Eighty-two percent said they were bothered by smoke in the complex grounds, while 80 percent said they feel bothered by smoke inside their units. Furthermore, 90 percent said they were in favor of smoking restrictions, with most favoring smoking bans in all units and common areas.
The council needed little convincing. Kniss, a former nurse and a strong proponent of smoking restrictions, said she was sympathetic to Prensky's views and threw her support behind the ban.
"Tobacco kills people," Kniss said. "And it's not just a casual kind of thing we're talking about. It is a dangerous drug."