SO ordinance will allow hookah lounges

Photo by Kaanita Iyer
Discussing an ordinance to allow hookah lounges and vape stores in South Orange are, from left, Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton, village President Sheena Collum and Trustee Howard Levison.

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — In a close vote on Aug. 13, the South Orange Board of Trustees passed business code revisions, which will allow hookah lounges and vape stores to operate in town.

There were two revision ordinances on the agenda for the Aug. 13 meeting: one permitting hookah lounges and vape stores on Valley Street, Irvington Avenue, South Orange Avenue, Sloan Street and other side streets, which was described as “more inclusive,” while the other prohibited such businesses from practicing in town.

After hearing comments from residents and representatives from the South Orange Village Center Alliance, the trustees, in a 4-3 vote, motioned to withdraw the less inclusive ordinance and adopt the revisions allowing for hookah and vape businesses. Trustees Steve Schnall, Howard Levison and Walter Clarke voted for the ordinance, while Trustees Mark Rosner, Deborah Davis Ford and Karen Hartshorn Hilton voted against it; to break the tie, village President Sheena Collum voted, ultimately helping the ordinance to pass.

“One of the things I want to be clear with the public is this does not mean, just because we put it in the ordinance, that there will be a business of this type whatsoever,” Schnall said. “The vaping and hookah lounge are also going to be regulated as the state does these things.”

Other proposed revisions to the business code in the ordinance included removing child care use from the ground floor, expanding the use of residential units to the ground floor, and allowing new uses of body piercing and tattoo shops, arcades, veterinary hospitals and medical clinics.

Yet, the focus remained on hookah and vape establishments.

“Code review and zoning codes are two of the most powerful tools that cities have and so updating that is a really important thing,” SOVCA Chairman Steven Pedigo said. “I am not an expert on vape shops; I don’t spend much time there. I don’t spend so much time in hookah shops, but one of the things that I tend to think about, as an economic developer, is not overly restricting uses and letting the market dictate the success of the business.”

SOVCA Executive Director Bob Zuckerman also spoke in support of the more inclusive ordinance. Zuckerman, who also serves as a director and vice chairman of Downtown New Jersey, said he received great feedback from the organization on the business code revisions and expanded use.

“They also would like to see if we can come up with some sort of template for other municipalities to take a look at their ordinances to see how they can update them for the 21st century and for the new retail landscape we’re facing today,” Zuckerman said. “This is a big deal.”

Zuckerman also mentioned that a new ordinance on windows and awnings will also be introduced soon, which will require businesses to make at least 75 percent of the window space visible, preventing potential in-town hookah lounges from blacking out their windows, like some lounges on Route 1.

However, concerns were also brought forth to the trustees, especially regarding the impact of such businesses on local youth.

“I don’t think that our forefathers — in laying out South Orange and saying what South Orange would be and how different it would be — would envision that we go along with providing a business or allowing a business to come in here that targets some of our most vulnerable individuals in our community and puts them at a health risk of either becoming addicted to the nicotine and/or, God forbid, developing some kind of disease as a result of nicotine,” said Rev. Terry Richardson, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of South Orange. “I think it’s just going to attract a different type of crowd and I just don’t think the forefathers looked at South Orange as being a party place.”

Collum addressed residents’ concerns, assuring that such establishments, if they come into town, will be “tightly regulated” under New Jersey’s Smoke Free Air Act. She also mentioned that the primary source of revenue for any of these establishments are their restaurants, and the smoke can not go outside the dedicated ventilated area for the activity.

Specifically commenting on the impacts such establishments will have on youth, she promised that only those who are at least 21 years of age will be permitted inside the hookah lounges and vape stores.

“It may not set a great example having it here,” Collum said. “But they will not have access to that.”

Collum also reiterated Schnall’s comment that, just because this provision is in the ordinance, it does not mean there necessarily will be such establishments in town.

“It’s not a provision where all of a sudden you’re going to walk into a retail establishment and tomorrow you’re going to just set up all these different hookahs and all that kind of stuff,” she said.

However, she made it clear that neither she nor the ordinance encourages vaping or smoking hookah.

“I’m not saying it is a good thing or encouraging it,” Collum said. “Without a doubt it is absolutely bad for you.”