Planners vote ’no’ on smoke and vape sign, say they can’t stop store coming to former 7-Eleven

Published 9:15 am Thursday, October 19, 2023

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 24 at 10:21 a.m. to correct that K&L Signs is only involved in manufacturing the sign that would adorn the proposed “Planet Tobacco & Mart. The smoke shop would be owned and operated by Ali Alkotaini.

Smithfield’s Planning Commission voted unanimously on Oct. 12 to deny an entrance corridor overlay approval for a proposed smoke and vape shop at the former 7-Eleven on South Church Street.

But they say they can’t stop the proposed use of the vacant convenience store altogether.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Building owner Ali Alkotaini has proposed turning the shuttered store, which closed earlier this year, into an outlet named “Planet Tobacco & Mart.” Kenneth Waggoner of Jacksonville, North Carolina-based K&L Signs had submitted an entrance corridor overlay application on behalf of Alkotaini for a lighted 19-foot-by-3-foot sign advertising Kratom, vape, cigar, hookah and grocery supplies.

The town’s zoning ordinance defines the area within 500 feet of each side of South Church Street as one of six entrance corridors, where new construction or renovations are required to be “appropriate to town character.”

The commissioners cited among their reasons for denial a provision of the town’s circa-2005 entrance corridor design guidelines requiring that signs  “use colors, shapes, graphics, lettering, and appropriate materials that complement the materials and color scheme of the building, including accent and trim colors,” and the applicants’ plan to light the sign with red LED bulbs in violation of a zoning ordinance provision that mandates only internal white lights be used.

Smithfield’s zoning ordinance currently makes no distinction between smoke shops and other retail sales establishments, though the commissioners are discussing an amendment that would do so. As such, the commissioners say they can’t outright prevent Waggoner’s proposed use for the former 7-Eleven, since retail sales are a permitted use for the building’s zoning.

Commissioner Randy Pack and others, however, are disinclined to grant exceptions that would speed along the process.

“While I don’t want to see this business here, I also don’t feel that we have a legal route to say that it can’t, and don’t want to hold this business to any standard that we would not hold another to,” Pack said.

Entrance corridor overlay reviews are among the rare instances when the Planning Commission rather than Smithfield’s Town Council has the final say over an application.

Neither Waggoner nor Alkotaini were present at the Oct. 12 meeting to make their case for the requested approval.

According to a report by the town’s staff, a special sign exception would also have been required to permit the red LED bulbs, though only the entrance corridor overlay approval was presented to the commissioners at the Oct. 12 meeting.

If Planet Tobacco & Mart later obtains the required approvals, it would be Smithfield’s first standalone smoke and vape shop. The other three already operating within the town’s limits are each in shopping centers.

The zoning ordinance amendment the commissioners are proposing would add separate definitions for retail sales establishments and smoke and vape shops or lounges, as well as restrictions on where and when the latter can operate.

The commissioners, as of Oct. 12, were proposing to restrict smoke and vape shops and lounges to operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and to incorporate language from Norfolk’s zoning ordinance that requires any glass windows or doors not be tinted or obscured – making it easier to ensure the store isn’t being frequented by anyone underage.

A new state law passed earlier this year sets a minimum age of 21 for the purchase of Kratom-based products. Kratom, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, refers to a herbal substance that can produce opioid and stimulant-like effects. A federal law enacted in 2019 raised the minimum age for tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes or vape pens, from 18 to 21.

Under the draft language, smoke and vape stores and lounges would be outright prohibited in areas zoned residential office, and, at minimum, require a special use permit for areas zoned downtown, highway retail commercial, planned shopping center, planned mixed-use development, light or heavy industrial and commercial/industrial.

Commissioner Thomas Pope proposed changing the language to also outright prohibit smoke and vape shops in downtown areas.

“I don’t want it on Main Street in front of the bakery,” Pope said.

Pack, however, said he’d prefer flexibility in deciding on a case-by-case basis whether a smoking-related store was appropriate for Main Street.

“If a cigar shop that sold cigars and cutters and humidors and all that wanted to come downtown, I would not have a problem with that,” Pack said.

The proposed zoning ordinance amendment would also incorporate language from a Chesterfield County ordinance that defines smoke and vape stores as having 15% or more of their display shelf areas populated with smoking or vaping supplies. The language is intended to avoid impacts to convenience and grocery stores that may sell, but aren’t dedicated to, smoke and vape wares.

Another provision the commissioners have asked to add to the ordinance is one that will allow them to consider a store’s proximity to schools and other institutions when evaluating a special use permit request.

Once the commissioners agree on a final draft of the ordinance changes, they’ll need to hold a public hearing on the matter before voting to advance the matter to the Town Council for a final vote.