Palo Alto seeks to snuff out smoke in apartments

City Council bans cigarette smoke at multi-unit buildings; sets permitting requirement for tobacco sellers

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."


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2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 6, 2016 at 11:20 am

How does this law impact a condo owner who smokes in her unit in a multi-unit dwelling? The smoke permeates the hallway and her neighbors upstairs get her smoke, especially in summer when windows are open. Will she have to stop smoking? It is already against HOA rules to smoke in common areas, but smoke leaks out.

2 people like this
Posted by Old PA resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2016 at 11:31 am

Old PA resident is a registered user.

So many questions:

Are there enforcement provisions? The article mentions only that the police will enforce existing laws related to minors, but nothing about the new restrictions. Can violators be fined or evicted? Or is this just feel-good legislation?

Are existing condominium owners or renters affected? If I've owned a unit for 20 years and I'm a smoker, am I prohibited from smoking in the home I own? The article mentions only the responsibility of those renting or selling to prospective occupants.

What recourse does a homeowner or tenant have should they discover a neighbor violating the ban? Can she call the police? Will the police politely suggest calling the county?

16 people like this
Posted by George Bonser
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2016 at 12:04 pm

As long as this ban includes pot as well. Additionally, we should ban durian, farting, kimchee, dirty laundry and anything else I find undesirable in scent. It is about time the city council realized that what the people of Palo Alto have long desired is a city government that micromanages the behaviors of its citizens who might engage in unpopular activities so that the majority might more effectively tyrannize them. I am waiting with bated breath for the coming ban on Republicans, global warming "deniers", and Dodger fans.

9 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 6, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Alcohol is a dangerous drug. It is very bad to allow children see adults drinking alcohol, and driving their cars home from restaurants and bars. Should wine be banned in multi-family units and at restaurants/bars? Since our CC has adopted a Carrie Nation fervor for prohibition, why not be consistent about it?

4 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2016 at 1:19 pm

PA Resident is a registered user.

I'm not a smoker, never have been, but I have lived with a very heavy smoker growing up. I hate smoking. However, saying that, I do understand that for smokers they need to have somewhere safe and legal to smoke. We are getting so good at banning the places to smoke that it is making those with the habit have to hunt and search for places to legally light up. One of the places I see it a great deal is parking lots and having to pass by people standing around smoking and breathing in their second hand smoke is not pleasant. I would like to see places like downtown or Stanford Shopping Centre having one location for smokers which is well ventilated and has somewhere for ash and butts, that is where nobody else has to pass, so that those who smoke can spend time away from everyone else to light up. Making smoking very difficult is one thing, but criminalizing smoking tobacco when the same is not being done for smoking pot seems crazy to me.

6 people like this
Posted by Teresa
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 6, 2016 at 1:35 pm

Oh I am so tired of the total DISrespect that folks have for others... There are folks(not me) who do smoke, how come they have become second class citizens and the Council has become the jailers of these folks? Where is "live and let live"????? How about making an area downtown, near eating emporiums, in apartment areas etc that give these smokers a place to smoke that all the residents and/or patrons can avoid because of signage informing them of the "hazard". These smokers are just like us non smokers, except they have an adiction which is such, for some of them an impossible habit to quit. I am tired of the intolerant, and increasing "holier than thou' attitude of non smokers and the Palo Alto Council. Remember too that those smokers have partners who dont smoke and thus business is lost all through Plao Alto because they have to go elsewhere now.

23 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Dec 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Thank you!!! I find it VERY offensive to smell smoke from others smoking tobacco and pot.

6 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 6, 2016 at 3:54 pm

From reading the City Council Staff Report and watching last night's City Council meeting, my interpretation of the key facts -- which could contain errors -- is as follows:

- Smoking will be prohibited in both enclosed and unenclosed areas of apartment and condominium buildings with two or more homes, even by the owner inside the unit he or she owns.

- An outdoor smoking area may be established if that area meets a very strict set of rules, including a distance of 25 feet from any window, door, opening, or vent.

- The ban includes tobacco, other plant products, and electronic smoking devices.

- The ban goes into effect on January 1, 2018.

- Enforcement will be conducted by the Santa Clara County Sheriff, not the Palo Alto City Police.

- The fine for the first violation is $250. The fine for the second violation is $300. The fine for each additional violation is $500.

See Web Link for the City Council Staff Report.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 6, 2016 at 5:37 pm

... except nothing happens if the violator cannot afford the fine.

18 people like this
Posted by Non-smoker
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 6, 2016 at 10:28 pm

Will due respect to smokers and to the authors of snarky comments about banning alcohol, dirty laundry, "live and let live", and such.

You cannot pretend you do not understand a simple fact that tobacco smoke is a health hazard. It gives active and passive smokers cancer and other diseases. That's a proven fact. 60% of air in apartment buildings is "common"; everyone breathes it. That is another proven fact.

Smoking is a choice; breathing is not. Smokers are free to poison themselves, if they so desire, but why should they be allowed to poison us, the non-smokers? "Infringement" on the smokers' right to smoke does not give them cancer. Infringement on our rights by smoking into our lungs does.

Smokers may have a problem now but why should we pay with our health for their choice?

6 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 6, 2016 at 11:07 pm

Smoking is a choice; breathing is not.
Please ban everything that aggravates asthma.
And for heavens sake, require everyone to get a whooping cough vaccination.

2 people like this
Posted by Also non smoker
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 7, 2016 at 8:00 am

Non smoker, yes as an asthmatic I do understand the importance of keeping shared residences smoke free. However by giving smokers a place where they can smoke....away from the residence and in an area where their smoke can be channelled up and away from others, we can solve that problem. By making non smokers aware of this area so they can avoid it we are more in control of the situation, tolerant of our fellow men/women and safe. Car exhaut fumes out side are far more damaging than cigarette smoke...... so do you feel that cars should be banned too?.... I also drive an electric car. I do what I can to save this world but I do not sneer at those with this addiction, I am just so grateful that I did not "buy into" the tobacco companys "come on in" ads.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2016 at 8:43 am

It is interesting that most of the commenters here are non-smokers and that many are asking for a place where smokers can legally smoke without affecting anyone else.

How about getting some legal smoking places around town! It is about time.

5 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2016 at 12:45 am

I'm a non-smoker for over 20 years, and I hate smoke ... but this does seem a tab
over-bearing. What is the problem this is supposed to be solving other than to
make life more difficult for smokers? And does that mean smokers of ANYTHING?
Cigarettes, cigars, whatever those vape thingees are called, what about incense?
Seems a bit totalitarian to me, but if I had smoke from someone's cigarettes pouring
into my window during the summer when I had to keep it open ... that would be
something that warrants legal action.

Thankfully, I don't smoke or have that problem. Maybe there is no other way to
solve it.

4 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2016 at 5:11 am

Valero Gas Station - "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."

Excuse me? Now PA City council, can just put a finger in your small business and change it at their whim? Aren't we a free enterprise country, founded on capitalism? This is unbelievable!!

I will not spend one more cent in PA. And if I find out I'm doing business with a company in a different town, that has owners in PA, I'll find somewhere else to do my business.

While we're discussing the air, why don't you get all he huge SUVs, trucks, etc., off the road. I have to laugh, every time I see a jogger on one of our roads.

4 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 8, 2016 at 7:39 am

"I will not spend one more cent in PA." -- Good luck not paying rent/mortgage, utilities, telephone, internet, home maintenance, or anything bought online sent or billed to your Midtown address. By the way, I searched the Constitution and did not find the word "capitalism" but did see something about "promote the general welfare".

4 people like this
Posted by margaret
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2016 at 2:16 pm

yes… in case you weren't noticing this is what bloated zombie government does

15 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 17, 2016 at 8:28 pm

When I didn't have any secondhand smoke problem, I thought other cities' multi family units smoking ban was too much. However, once I had it, I totally understand why it is needed.

We had a heavy smoker living one floor down. That resident smoking smell was sneaking into our unit through all the ventilations, drains, small holes like toilet bowl waterways, and all other places we can't seal completely. We sealed ventilations except bathrooms and closed our bathroom doors all the time, but smoking smell was still coming into our unit though all other not sealed places like drains. We also kept our windows open as much as we could even in winter time.

Also the smoker resident's hallway was filled with smoke all the time and smoke smell traveled to all floors' stairways, the other parts hallways, and the laundry rooms. It really affected very wide range. Our apartment was in transition to a no smoking apartment at that time. Most of the residents signed no smoking clause, but some old tenants were with old lease terms. The smoker resident was the only one who smoked in the apartment with the old lease. There were very few we could do about the issue.

It is impossible to block other people's smoking smell in multi family units settings. The only place our children were exposed to secondhand smoke daily, was our home. When we checked our apartment, it was summer time and seemed that resident was away or something, so we didn't notice the smoking issue beforehand.

I understand the ordinance sounds too much, but it really helps secondhand smoke risk.

2 people like this
Posted by Zo0tie
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 5, 2017 at 9:17 am

Um...what about incense. Oh and perfume. Some people absolutely hate that stuff. Let's ban that in multifamily units.

4 people like this
Posted by fred-o
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Sep 6, 2017 at 5:18 am

Tobacco smokers apparently need to be treated like children until they learn to take care of their health better. Most of us Paly types know better and don't like it anyway so ban it everywhere we can please.

I do encourage everyone to smoke a little pot whenever they get the chance though, so that's ok by us anywhere!

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2017 at 8:40 am

No Fred o

You can't smoke pot anywhere. You have to obey no-smoking laws and rules.

The rest of us do not want your second hand smoke of any type!

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 6, 2017 at 11:18 am

If there is pot smoke coming over the fence where I live then that will result in a call to the police dept. If nothing else "air quality" is a prized feature of where we live. I grew up in LA and we had to stay inside at recess and put our heads on the desk. One friend left the big island of Hawaii because of the continual VOG (volcano driven smoke) - very bad at times. Friends at Webster House had windows on Webster Street where a diesel bus sat at the signal. Summer time is open windows and diesel fumes coming in.
And a neighbor has taken up a "smoker" BBQ which requires 8 hours of smoking.
Now that was worth a number of confrontations as the wind carries the smoke and it comes in the house via the roof openings.
We all have a right to air quality and individual habits which interfere with air quality of other people's activity is not tolerated. We have enough air quality issues with fires, airplane activity overhead.

4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 6, 2017 at 11:31 am

If we all have such a right to clean air, why isn't something being done about the constant gridlock and ever-increasing numbers of commuters flooding our streets and polluting our air while they wait for 3 and 4 traffic lights to get through an intersection?

Why do we keep electing City Council members who are pushing to increase the commuter to resident ratio from its current 4:1 to even more?

I sense a lot of hypocrisy here.

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