Burnsville will likely join a number of cities that have tightened rules on the smoking establishments.
Burnsville appears ready to enact new rules for hookah lounges, with several limitations on how, when and where they operate — and reserve the option of stricter rules that could effectively eliminate them.
The city’s two indoor, Middle Eastern-style smoking establishments have sparked numerous complaints from neighboring residents and businesses as well as police calls since opening earlier this year. A third indoor hookhah lounge has an application pending with the city.
In October, the City Council asked staff members to gather more information on the two operations and look at how other cities regulate the businesses. After a contentious work session discussion on the topic last week, the council is set to vote next month on a new ordinance that would restrict the size, location and operating hours of such businesses.
Hookahs are water pipes for smoking flavored tobacco. Although used mainly by Minnesota’s Middle Eastern immigrant population, they also have become popular with other young adults.
A 2007 state law prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants, but hookah lounges have been able to operate because the law allows tobacco shops to offer sampling, or smoking inside.
Some cities have acted to close the sampling loophole. Many cities in Minnesota prohibit all indoor smoking, including sampling, according to the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. That includes metro-area communities such as Hopkins, St. Louis Park, St. Anthony, Arden Hills, Roseville and Oakdale.
A report by Burnsville’s staff says the city’s two indoor lounges have been operating illegally. Both were issued licenses to operate as tobacco retailers but in fact have been operating like nightclubs with smoking for large numbers of customers. The Fire Department has found over-occupancy issues and fire code violations at both hookah lounges. In early November the Fire Department had to clear patrons at one establishment, Ignite Hookah Lounge, after detecting a carbon monoxide level five times the acceptable level set by government regulators.
The staff report also noted increased police patrols at both hookah lounges based on resident complaints and officers’ observations of activities outside the businesses.
The report recommended the council adopt an ordinance similar to one passed last year in Minneapolis that doesn’t allow tobacco stores to offer sampling from devices unless the customer is purchasing the device. That would effectively close the sampling loophole for hookah businesses while allowing a cigar shop such as Burn, 409 W. Burnsville Pkwy., to continue to offer sampling because a cigar isn’t considered a device.
At a work session last week, Council Member Mary Sherry said she strongly favored an ordinance prohibiting sampling from devices. “I really think this is critical to the issue at hand,” she said.
Ultimately the council chose a less severe route, directing city staff to draft an ordinance with some limits for all businesses whose primary sales come from tobacco. The limits will include square footage, seating capacity, hours of operation and the distance between similar tobacco-related businesses.
“We’re trying to find a way to make it work,” said Council Member Dan Kealey. He noted that the size and seating rules should help the hookah lounges continue to operate but avoid the large gatherings that have prompted complaints and police calls.
The new rules on hours could significantly curtail operations at both hookah lounges, which now are open past midnight. No hours have been set yet, but the new ordinance will probably require them to close by 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., according to Jenni Faulkner, community development director.
Alex Bajwa, a St. Paul attorney representing Taha Hookah, told the council that shop owner Mohammed Taha supports the suggested limitations. He said Taha has worked with the Fire Department to make sure his business is operating safely and has invested about $75,000 in equipment to improve ventilation and other systems.
Sherry was clearly disappointed the council chose not to include a ban on device-sampling. Mayor Elizabeth Kautz suggested it be written up separately as an amendment that could be added when the council considers the ordinance at a regular meeting later this month.
A lot of the discussion at the work session also centered on possible rules for lounges where customers use electronic cigarettes. The new hookah lounge ordinance would not address e-cigarettes as yet.