New Rochelle Hookah Lounge Raises Questions on Need for Regulation

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New Rochelle Hookah Lounge Raises Questions on Need for Regulation

January 11, 2016 - 23:54

Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge on East Main Street in New Rochelle

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NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Cousins Cigar Lounge, located at 245 Main Street in New Rochelle. opened in 2008 as a retail location for cigars and related products with a lounge area in the back of the store. Over the past year the store, under the ownership of retired police officer Vincent Mirabile, began to bill itself as a “Cigar & Hookah” Lounge.

 Hookah is becoming increasingly popular, especially among adolescents of higher socioeconomic status. According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, 18% of high school seniors have tried hookah. A survey of Arizona high school (10.3%) and middle school students (2.1%) found a growing use of hookah. A study in the Journal of American College Health founded that 20% of college students have used hookah in the past year. Hookah bars have sprung up around college campuses throughout the United States.

Many young people believe hookah is safer than cigarettes. According to the American Lung Association, hookah smoking carries many of the same health risks and has been linked to many of the same diseases caused by cigarette smoking.

The American Lung Association and its public health partners are calling for an effort to close loopholes in smokefree workplace laws that often exempt hookah bars.

 Cousins operates in a particular type of commercial zone called a “C-1M General Commercial Modified District” which permits certain types of uses including retail stores, ships and “customary” personal services along with large scale major retail outlets, theaters up to a capacity of 200 persons, bowling alleys, skating rinks, indoor tennis courts and indoor racquetball and squash courts, banks, restaurants, boatyard, manufacture of products for retail sale on the premises only, provided that not more than five persons shall be so employed at any one time, and provided further that not more than 30% of the gross floor area of any establishment be so used, municipal uses, houses of worship, martial arts studios, dance studios and aerobic exercise studios and college-related uses within 1,500 feet of the college and/or university's main administrative building. 

Hookah Lounges are not an explicitly permitted usage in a C-1M zone.

There are permitted accessory uses with a a C-1M zone including uses and structures which are clearly incidental and customarily accessory to the permitted principal use on the lot on which they are located, motor vehicle storage areas and related parking, amusement devices, satellite earth station or dish antennas, outdoor dining. An establishment can seek permission to operate by special permit such as a billiard hall, public utility, cellular antennas, car washes. motor vehicle dealerships and vehicle rental agencies. motor vehicle filling and service stations, tattoo studios and cabarets as accessories to a restaurant but only within a Cabaret Overlay Zone.

Mirabile could argue that a Hookah Lounge is a “clearly incidental and customarily accessory to the permitted principal use” because the store sells Hookah tobacco and accessories and the sale of tobacco is a permitted use or that a Hookah Lounge is merely a customary extension of a Cigar Lounge often described as a “cigar bar”. As a Hookah Lounge is not specifically prohibited and their is no special regulation such as that recently implemented for a tattoo parlor, it appears that a Hookah Lounge is no different than a “cigar bar” which Cousins has been since 2008.

Under the New York State Indoor Clean Air Act smoking is permitted in certain areas or businesses including private homes and private residences when not used for day care, private automobiles, hotel or motel rooms rented to one or more guests, retail tobacco businesses where the primary activity is the retail sale of tobacco products and accessories, and the sale of other products is merely incidental, membership associations where all duties related to the operation of the association are performed by volunteers who are not compensated in any manner and cigar bars in existence prior to January 1, 2003 (where 10% or more of total annual gross income is from the sale of tobacco products). Finally, up to 25% of seating in outdoor areas of restaurants with no roof or ceiling enclosure may be designated smoking areas.

Cousins could be considered a “retail tobacco business” or a “cigar bar”. If Cousins is considered a “retail tobacco business” then smoking would be permitted under the Clean Air Act but if a “cigar bar” then smoking would be permitted only if the “cigar bar” had been opened since before 2003 which is not the case with Cousins Cigar and Hookah Lounge.

While a Hookah Lounge may or not be legal to operate in New Rochelle the transformation of the store front with a maroon awning with yellow lettering is illegal because the awning was not approved by the City of New Rochelle.

In New Rochelle, signs are approved by the building department whereas awnings are approved by the Municipal Arts Commission. A review of building department files that showed that a sign was approved in 2008 by the building department. At some point, the sign was replaced by a maroon awning with white lettering. That sign was, in turn, replaced by the current awning with yellow lettering. Neither of the two awnings were submitted for approval. The City is currently investigating the awning.

More broadly the City Council needs to consider the issue of Hookah Bars in New Rochelle. With three college campuses and four high schools serving educating thousands of 18-24 year olds, New Rochelle is likely to become a mecca for Hookah Bars in the near future. In fact, they are already here.

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I think tobacco is one of the most obnoxious and deadly substances that are legally used in the USA, and have always avoided smoking it.

When I was a kid, the NRHS student government (G.O.) sold it within the High School (the year after the NRHS fire), and there was a location on campus where students could smoke. Back then there was no age limit on tobacco, the drinking age was 18, and the voting age was 21. Back then it was legal to smoke in a public building, at an office or most other places. Things have changed a bit since then, in some ways better, and in some ways worse.

Personally, I'd prefer people to smoke in a hookah lounge than on the street, hallways or apartment. As I do not go to hookah lounges, I am not exposed to the obnoxious fumes of tobacco there, but unfortunately I am frequently exposed to tobacco fumes on the streets and hallways.

Based on my own reasoning, I'm surprised that you'd not be supporting the idea of tobacco users smoking in hookah lounges as preferable to smoking virtually anywhere else.

Robert Cox's picture

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I am not ADVOCATING FOR or OPPOSING Hookah Lounges by merely responding to reader inquiries on this topic, doing to some research and posing some questions.

If you want to frame the issue as smoking in a Hookah Lounge versus smoking on a street corner you are free to do that but the issue here is a new type of business not clearly covered by local or State law. As the popularity of Hookah Lounges is new and attracts people 18-24 and New Rochelle is "college town" we could go well go from 1 to 2 to 10 quite quickly. If residents don't mind that's fine. If they do then the City Council should have Corporation Counsel offer an opinion and, if warranted, the City Code should be amended accordingly.

In short, what I am advocating for is the rule of law -- my concern has nothing to do with smoking hookah or cigar as I hardly hide the fact that I am an avid cigar smoker myself.