BETHLEHEM — The Town Board is considering an extension of the six-month moratorium on permitting new vape stores by another six months.
They unanimously voted during its Nov. 13 meeting to set a public hearing at its Nov. 26 meeting at 6 p.m. so that the public can offer input on the potential of prolonging the moratorium. The moratorium in question is on “the submission and processing of applications for building permits, certificates of occupancy, and land use approvals for vape shops, smoke shops and the sale of marijuana or marijuana products, or the dispensing or distribution of medical marijuana,” according to town documents.
The original six-month moratorium had been in place after the Town Board voted 4-1, with member Jim Foster the only one against it, on June 26.
Leslie Lombardo, a senior planner in the town’s Planning Division’s, appeared before the board to say town staff has been researching options for regulating vaping products and e-cigarettes so far. “Our research shows that vaping products are tobacco products, according to the New York State Department of Health,” she said. “As a result of that connection, vape and tobacco products cannot be regulated separately and standalone vape shops cannot be separated from tobacco retailers, which would include gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores in towns that do not have pharmacies and other standalone stores like a beverage center.”
Lombardo also said that town staff have researched marijuana product sales and “found that they would be a natural progression for businesses selling tobacco products.”
Since vape and tobacco products have to be considered together and not as separate issues, she added, “staff is recommending a combination of zoning law amendments as well as a licensing system at the town level to regulate use and product sales. The purpose would be to reduce exposure, particularly of children and teenagers, to the number of retailers selling tobacco and vape products. All the research that we’ve done so far needs to be considered by the Town Board for policy decisions.”
The Planning Department also has to receive guidance from the Town Board first regarding drafting regulations; the latter board can then get options for potential zoning law changes and the former board will provide a recommendation on such changes too.
Lombardo explained that this process takes time as well as how the town’s Building Department needs to learn how to set up and handle the aforementioned licensing system, hence the request for an additional six months to this moratorium.
The original six-month moratorium had been created because the town had received two building permit applications for proposed stores earlier this year that would sell products like vaping devices and medical marijuana.
One application was to be located on 243 Delaware Ave. close to Elsmere Elementary School and the other on 365 Feura Bush Road which was 1,800 feet from Glenmont Elementary School. This raised questions about whether such a store should be located near a school and young children.
Bethlehem has one existing vaping shop so far which is Interstate Vapor, located on 340 Delaware Ave. which opened in 2015 and is not affected by this moratorium.
The aforementioned Glenmont business application would not also be affected as it already got its certificate of occupancy from the town’s Building Department in mid-June.
Foster asked whether there has been an outreach effort so far to existing vape and tobacco retailers in town to let them know about this ongoing issue but Lombardo said no as town staff have been only in its research stage since June.
“Regardless of how the board decides to proceed, I think that’s something that would be valuable for town staff and the board too to make that outreach to local business owners,” Foster said.
While Town Board member Dan Coffey confirmed that the board was not voting yet on whether to extend the moratorium on Nov. 13, he wondered whether the requested six-month period is enough time to get the desired work done or even if there is a possibility for yet another request in summer 2020 for six more months.
“I feel like we’re ready for the next step, once we have the direction of actually drafting, so I do think six months will hopefully be enough time,” Lombardo said. “We do have to go to the Planning Board and so there’s meeting dates and we also have to make a referral to the Albany County Planning Board. So, there’s a lot of procedural steps but I feel confident that we have done the research and have the knowledge now to take the next step forward.”
Town Board member Maureen Cunningham said, “I’m so glad you all have done this research and I’m especially interested in what other communities around the country or state are doing. I think we, as a town, are taking a common-sense approach which I believe in, especially when it’s based on research and facts.”
While she added that she supports an extension to the moratorium, she recalled how a community in Buffalo had contacted her when the original moratorium was just created as it was undergoing a similar issue with regulating vape and medical marijuana stores too.
Robert Leslie, the town’s Planning Division director, said his department expects to present to the Town Board about zoning and setting up the licensing system soon, and the Town Board should make a decision on extending the moratorium or not in December or January at the latest.