The Burlington City Council has taken one step toward adopting a ban on smoking on the city's cherished promenade.
On Monday evening, all but one councilor voted to send to a proposal to its ordinance committee that would prohibit smoking "strictly on the bricks" of Church Street.
In 2012, Mayor Bob Kiss vetoed a law that would have banned smoking in a larger section of the city's downtown, and several years earlier the council struck down a similar proposal.
"It's not like this is a new idea," said Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), one of the co-sponsors. But, she added, it has "evolved for the better." Paul and other supporters made the case that it's necessary to protect people from secondhand smoke, and it would promote Burlington's image as a healthy city.
Ron Redmond, executive director of the Church Street Marketplace District Commission, left, and Jeff Nick, the commission's chair, address the city council.
In addition to being smaller in scope — it's limited to the stretch of street between Pearl Street and Main Street — it nixes what critics call the "pay-to-play" measure, which would exempt people sitting in outdoor cafes. Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4), who opposed the 2012 ban, said those changes won him over.
But concern lingered among some councilors that the proposed ban is a roundabout attempt to "get rid of riffraff" on Church Street — as Selene Colburn put it.
The Church Street Marketplace District Commission asked the city council to consider the ban, and as supporting evidence, its chairman, Jeff Nick, offered up an opinion survey showing that 76 percent of Church Street merchants support a 9:00 A.M to 9:00 P.M prohibition on smoking. The state Department of Health and Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community are also advocating for it.
Violators would be subject to a $50 fine, but the ordinance would not apply to private property. The council is asking the ordinance committee to consider a 24-hour ban, although a number of councilors said they were more comfortable with a 12- or 14-hour ban.
When he came to make his case last night, Nick placed a package on the table in front of him. Inside, he said, were 9,200 butts, collected by maintenance staff, at his request, over the course of five days.
Not all the councilors were swayed by his box of butts. Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) said he's been informally monitoring the number of smokers on Church Street and he described the ordinance proposal as a "solution in search of a problem." Bob Conlon, owner of Leunig’s Bistro, said the same during the public hearing portion of the meeting.
Several councilors said they worried the ban would simply push smokers to nearby side streets. Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2), who described herself as "definitely agnostic" on the ban, said she wanted to know how it would affect business on Church Street. The city, she said, relies heavily on the gross receipts tax it reaps from the Marketplace businesses. "What we have in our pocket is an opinion survey," Knodell said. "It doesn’t give me any information that helps me understand the economic impact."
Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) was the lone dissenting vote, citing economic and "constitutional" concerns.
In response, Nick said he was "not the least bit concerned about gross receipts," and Ron Redmond, the Commission's executive director said the ban would act as a "marketing tool," reinforcing Burlington's image as a healthy city.
In characteristic fashion, Mayor Miro Weinberger waited until the tail end of the discussion to weigh in. He declined to say whether he'd support the ban, and in a later interview confirmed that he was undecided. He did urge the council to wait until the verdict comes down in a court case about another Church Street Marketplace law — the no-trespass ordinance, which allows police to banish people from the Marketplace for certain repeat offenses.