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Smoldering Debate Over Smoking

Controversial smoking ban produces noxious fumes at City Hall.

Mayor Bill Euille’s proposed smoking ban is causing consternation among many restaurant owners and business leaders, who came to City Hall last week to announce their displeasure. During an hour-long meeting billed as an "informational session," several restaurateurs said that they were concerned that a smoking ban in Alexandria would drive customers to Arlington.

"I’ve been in this business for 33 years, and you are threatening to wipe me out," said Franco Landini, one of the city’s most prominent restaurateurs. "I might have to fire 20 people."

"If you pass this, a lot of restaurants are going to leave the city," said Pat Troy, owner of a popular Irish pub. "I don’t know why you are bothering with the public hearing because this has already been set in stone and it will receive a unanimous vote in the City Council."

The mayor said that a decision has not been made, and that the matter will receive a full and complete public airing. He said that when he first ran for City Council in 1994, one of his campaign issues was creating a citizens’ review board for the Police Department. Euille said that he heard from enough people that the idea would never work, and that the proposal was eventually shelved.

"It was tabled," said the mayor. "And it’s never been brought up again."

Euille also added added, for "full disclosure," that he was well aware of the concerns of restaurant owners because he has been an investor in the industry for many years. According to Euille’s annual statement of interest, which was filed in January with the city clerk, the mayor owns stock in the Majestic Grill and Mango Mike’s.

"Restaurants make their money at the bar," said Virginia Slims smoker Annabelle Fisher. "As someone who is in the business, you should know that."

VIRGINIA LAW prohibits the city from adopting a direct ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, but Mayor Euille asked City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa to investigate other ways to accomplish the same goal under the existing laws of the commonwealth. In February, Pessoa presented a plan to City Council that would use the city’s authority under its Zoning Ordinance to require bars and restaurants operate as smoke-free establishments. Under the language of the proposal, which Pessoa said was modeled after a similar proposal in Seattle, smoking would be prohibited 20 feet from the establishment.

"Where are my customers supposed to go if they want to smoke?" asked Reid Voss, manager of Joe Theisman’s Restaurant. "You are going to force them out the door and into the street."

Pessoa said that the 20-foot rule would be applied in a similar fashion to the "ABC line," which regulates limitation of alcohol consumption. In response to a question about the smoking ban being used in later attempts to ban other health hazards, the city attorney said "As far as I know, there are no secondhand trans fats."

"Are you saying that there are no secondhand effects of alcohol?" asked one woman in the back of the room. "That’s absurd."

SEVERAL SPEAKERS wanted to express their disapproval of the way the city has chosen to go about the smoking ban — by using its zoning authority. This would make the $50 ticket for each violation go to the restaurant and not the smoker, creating a new web of bureaucracy to a special-use permitting process that many business owners said was already fraught with red tape.

"The SUP process is already cumbersome as it is," said M. Catharine Puskar, representing the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. "Making it more cumbersome is going to put the city at a disadvantage."

Puskar went on to say that trying to ban smoking without adopting a ban on smoking was a flawed strategy.

"We feel that this needs to be done properly through the General Assembly," she said, referring to the governor’s failed attempt to create a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. "There will be litigation on this, and the city needs to consider whether it wants to spend more money on litigation during a time of tight budgets."