BETHLEHEM — The town board is considering a new licensing system and setting a limit on the number of retailers selling tobacco and vapor products in town.
During the virtual April 22 town board meeting, Bethlehem Planning Division Senior Planner Leslie Lombardo said staff began drafting a local law “for a tobacco and vapor retailer license with a restriction on vapor product sales within 1,000 feet of schools.” Requiring guidance from the town board on the drafted licensing program details before the local law would be formally introduced at the May 13 town board meeting, Lombardo presented options and requirements for the town board to discuss and consider
Requirements would include Bethlehem retailers to apply and get a license from the town to sell products that contain tobacco leaf or nicotine; any vapor product, regardless of containing nicotine; and any parts of tobacco products like separately-sold cartridges, vaping liquids or pipes. Such retailers cannot sell vapor products within 1,000 feet of schools but can still sell tobacco products.
One option the town can consider is limiting the number of licenses issued to retailers. Lombardo noted there are 15 existing local tobacco retail businesses within 1,000 feet of schools. Five of them — two Stewart’s convenience stores, Mobil-Delmar Mart, Valero and Delmar Beverage Inc. — also sell vape products and are located along Delaware Avenue.
“The town may initially issue licenses to all the eligible retailers that apply and those are basically the existing businesses in town, and the cap will not be applied in that first licensing cycle,” Lombardo said. “After the first round of licensing, the town will issue renewed licenses to eligible applicants so those existing retailers will be considered to be renewed licenses.”
She added that the license would function for one calendar year and then existing businesses must reapply for another license every year. After the licensing system’s first year, a cap on the number of licenses allowed to be issued would take effect — and the town board has three cap options to consider.
First, the town could set the cap at the number of licenses issued in its first licensing cycle and it can only issue a new license when the total number of licenses does not exceed the cap. “For example, if we have 15 existing businesses and they all come in the first cycle to get a license, the cap would be set at 15,” Lombardo said. “And if a new business wants a license, they would not be allowed to have one because the existing businesses would have had the 15. A year after that, if we have 14 existing businesses come in to renew their licenses, then we can issue a new license for a new business because our cap is 15 from the year before.”
Second, the town may consider “cap and winnow” where like natural attrition, it may grant one new license for every two licenses that are not renewed from the previous cycle. Lombardo gave the example of 13 businesses renewing their license in the second year, meaning that the town can grant just one new license to a new business then. No new licenses would be issued though if no new business applies.
Third, the town may have a “cap and winnow with a floor” option which follows the previous option’s approach but the town must determine what’s the minimum number of licenses it wants to reduce to over time, which would prevent the number of licenses issued in a year from falling to zero.
Town Board members Dan Coffey, Maureen Cunningham, Joyce Becker and Jim Foster agreed that if the town chooses the third option, the floor number should be set at seven or eight — about half of 15 which refers to the number of existing businesses. Town Supervisor David VanLuven preferred not having a floor but said he’s willing to consider it.
Coffey said, “I doubt we’re ever going to get to a point where half of our retailers will be out of town and I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the floor but I’m comfortable with putting a floor in just to make sure residents of legal age don’t have to go to another town to buy.”
Foster chimed in, “I think it’s unlikely we’ll ever end up in a situation where we’ll have no businesses or become a dry town but we’re living in times where we’re seeing things we thought would never happen. So preventing those circumstances, I’d continue supporting a floor.”
Lombardo said the town board would need to determine and approve how much the application fee — covering the application’s processing and possibly store inspection — and the annual license fee a tobacco retailer would pay as well. She said staff have worked with Northeastern University School of Law’s Public Health and Tobacco Policy Center to begin figuring out how much such fees could be like too as the organization worked with other municipalities regarding tobacco-related policies.
“One community I’ve looked at had fees that were $200 to $250 for both the application fee and annual license fee so in total, it’d be $500 for a retailer to get their license,” Lombardo said.
Foster said he would not want the fees to be “punitive” or be perceived as punishing businesses, both existing and upcoming. “I’d try to keep the fees as reasonably low as possible and be cognizant of the climate we’re in now as we have many struggling businesses,” he added. “I’m concerned about the annual licensing fee because I think that can go on in perpetuity.”
Lombardo also encouraged the town board to consider extending the current moratorium, which will end on June 26, by another six months.
She explained staff would need more time to further develop and prepare the licensing system and application documents, and educate themselves and existing businesses about it. Also, the extended moratorium would lead the town to begin issuing licenses in January 2021, with applications submitted by December 2020. She noted that since many businesses are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic now, the extended timeframe would not burden them more with application and annual license fees anytime soon.
Looking ahead, the town board’s comments will be considered into the drafted local law and discussions will continue until the law is introduced at the May 13 town board meeting. A public hearing is planned for May 27 and the law may potentially be adopted on June 10.