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Church Street Businesses "Oppose" Outdoor Smoking Ban? Not So Fast


Published February 3, 2010 at 4:38 p.m.

A "majority" of Church Street businesses oppose an outdoor smoking ban on the pedestrian mall, according to a new survey by the Church Street Marketplace District Commission.

But fewer than one in six business owners — only 33 out of 200 —bothered to fill out the survey asking their opinion of the proposed ban. So how meaningful are the survey results, when a "majority" represents only 17 out of 200 merchants?

That was the question up for debate Tuesday night as the City Council's Ordinance Committee heard testimony on the idea of banning outdoor smoking on the Church Street Marketplace and in city parks and beaches.

Church Street Marketplace executive director Ron Redmond (pictured) told city councilors the recession makes this "simply a terrible time" to impose new burdens, in this case a smoking ban, on merchants and restaurant owners. Two such business owners in attendance wholeheartedly agreed. A third said: Ban the butts!

The smoking ban is the brainchild of City Councilor Karen Paul, an Independent from Ward 6 who wants to fine violators $100 to $200 for lighting up in designated smoke-free zones. Paul sees outdoor smoking as a health and environmental hazard. Click here to read a story about that. Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling told Seven Days he's more inclined to "educate" members of the public about the ban than to fine them — at least at first.

Ron Redmond presented results from a survey that asked Church Street business owners to rate their level of support for the smoking ban, anticipate how it would affect their business and brainstorm potential alternatives. Of the 30 businesses and three street vendors who replied, 20 said they "do not support" the ban; eight said they "strongly support" it; and five said they were impartial or didn't have strong feelings about it.

According to the survey, the number one reason businesses opposed the idea was that it would be "economically detrimental" — 17 survey respondents said that. The number two reason was "moral-based opinions that outdoor smoking cannot be banned" (15 people said that). Number three was that the Church Street Marketplace and City Council have "more important issues" to tackle.

The biggest reason for supporting the idea was that "a ban would be economically beneficial." Tied for second was "A ban would get rid of unwelcome loiterers" and "A ban would create a friendlier atmosphere for [Church Street Marketplace]."

Countering the loitering argument, some merchants said they oppose the outdoor ban because it "unfairly targets specific people with a right to be present on Church Street." Two respondents said that.

The survey authors argue that banning smoking on Church Street would be ineffective because it would simply push smokers onto side streets — which are narrower, and therefore make it harder for passersby to avoid walking through clouds of cigarette smoke.

Two Church Street business owners at Tuesday's hearing said the ban was a bad idea.

"You've forced all the smokers outside; now you're trying to force them off the street!" cried Tom Miller (pictured at right), who owns Ken's Pizza Pub and also owns The Other Place bar on North Winooski. The economy has already clobbered downtown businesses, Miller told city councilors, and an outdoor smoking ban would only drive more customers away.

"Losing customers to Williston — that's a hard pill to swallow," Miller said. Cigarette sales at The Other Place are down $3000 over the last year, Miller noted. He sees that as evidence that smoking is already in decline.

Garcia's Tobacco Shop owner Fred Palatino (pictured below) said there are already too many vacant storefronts on Church Street, and predicted a smoking ban would create more. "If smokers can't smoke on Church Street, they'll shop somewhere else," Palatino said.

Joseph Frank, a semi-retired lawyer who for years practiced law at 1 Church Street (the old Masonic Temple), questioned how thorough the Church Street Marketplace's survey was, given the low response rate. "The people with strong feelings don't respond," said Frank, who supports the ban because "the vast majority of folks who walk up and down Church Street don't smoke."

Frank suggested some compromises to the ordinance: Ban smoking until 6 p.m., so bar patrons can still step outside to light up. Make the minimum fine $50 instead of $100 to make it more "palatable."

One Church Street merchant, pushcart vendor Jonathan Hart, urged the committee to enact the smoking ban. "People throw cigarettes and cigar butts on the ground," Hart said. "I walk over and pour water on the burning filters because it is nauseating."

The Ordinance Committee takes up the issue again next Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. in the community room at the Police Station on North Avenue.