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Denton bars have to clear the air

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

Council votes to expand smoking ban, though clubs have grace period

A deeply divided City Council slogged through several amendments and procedural moves before voting 5-2 to expand Denton’s smoking ban to e-cigarettes and similar devices.

The ban also extends to all bars, with some getting until the end of 2017 to comply.

Council members Joey Hawkins and John Ryan opposed expanding the ban. Council member Greg Johnson said he was voting for the expanded ban only after negotiating for amendments that softened the blow to existing bar owners. He said he believed some bar owners made investments in their property thinking they had an exemption, since they brokered a compromise two years ago in the original ban on smoking in many public places.

Any bars that have patios will have about 120 days to put an end to indoor smoking. Bars that don’t have patios will have until the end of 2017 to comply, in order to give them a chance to rework their business plans. Those smoking bars will also have new signage requirements until they comply.

The council also reinstated a restriction prohibiting smoking within 30 feet of an entrance. The requirement addresses concerns that smokers might simply step outside a bar in dense area, such as downtown, and create a public nuisance.

No one will be allowed to use e-cigarettes or similar devices any place that smoking is banned. Nor will vapor shops and other retailers be allowed to sell e-cigarettes and similar devices to minors.

But it took hours of public testimony and incremental negotiations to push those final measures through.

Sparks flew after council member Jim Engelbrecht told bar owner Charlie Nolet the city had followed up on previous reporting by bar owners that the original ban was “working” through marketplace pressure. They had reported that just 11 of 37 bars allowed smoking, essentially the bars that didn’t — and couldn’t — have patios for smokers.

City spokeswoman Lindsey Baker said the city staff researched the statistic, pulling up all 33 permitted bars and calling on them to see which still allowed smoking. The city found that 20 still allowed indoor smoking, a marked difference in what was self-reported.

Nolet said he received no phone call from the city and checked with several other bar owners who also said they received no such call.

Council member Kevin Roden had made a motion to expand the smoking ban after a public hearing on the matter two weeks ago. After council member Dalton Gregory seconded the motion, Ryan moved to continue the motion.

As a procedural move, a motion to continue takes precedence over any other motion. The council agreed to give the city staff some time to rewrite the ordinance to reflect Roden’s motion. The council discussed the rewrites during a work session Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that they were deeply divided on the matter.

Mayor Chris Watts signaled to the council during the work session that he wouldn’t support the grandfathering provision Roden had proposed for current smoking bars, but he would support a sunset provision.

The “grandfather” provision would have permitted bars to still allow smoking until some other criteria were triggered, such as the sale of the business. Instead, a “sunset” provision establishes a specific time frame to end smoking in Denton bars.

After taking about 30 minutes of public testimony Tuesday night, most from bar owners and employees opposed to the ban, Hawkins moved to continue the matter again. But he did so with the condition that the council reconvene the ad hoc committee that helped put together the first ban two years ago.

When his motion failed on a 3-4 vote — Engelbrecht, Gregory, Roden and Watts opposed — both Johnson and Gregory began making amendments to the original motion to reflect the new compromises.

Roden also withdrew a controversial prohibition on live music in smoking bars.

IN OTHER ACTION

During its regular meeting Tuesday night, the Denton City Council also:

• Approved the execution of an interlocal agreement with Denton County Emergency Services District 1 for firefighting and emergency medical services.

• Abandoned right of way along Avenue D between Eagle Drive and Maple Street to accommodate the construction of the University of North Texas’ Rawlins Hall.

• Appointed the Planning and Zoning Commission’s members as the Capital Improvements Advisory Committee.

• Approved El Guapo’s Mexican Restaurant as sole provider of alcoholic beverages at the Cinco de Mayo Celebration on May 2.

• Accepted a Texas Department of Transportation grant for engineering and construction of a shared-use path on Western Boulevard.

• Awarded a five-year contract to American Business Electronics for a security access control system for $2.5 million and to Staples for office supplies for $1.5 million.

• Awarded three-year contracts to various vendors for water treatment chemicals for $4.2 million, to Viking Construction for street micro-surfacing for $1.1 million and to Suwanee for overhead transmission conductors for $1.1 million.

• Approved initial offers totaling $292,000 for land to expand the Hickory Street Substation.

• Awarded a construction contract to UtiliTex Construction for work on the wastewater collection system for $588,302 and to Mag Construction Services for airport hangars for $617,802.

— Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe