Planners approve smoke shop sign, advance recreational substance restrictions

Published 5:12 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

A month after denying an entrance corridor approval for a proposed smoke and vape shop at the former 7-Eleven on South Church Street, Smithfield’s Planning Commission reversed course and approved the application on Nov. 14.

The commissioners then voted the same evening to advance an ordinance change that would define and restrict any future “recreational substance establishments.”

Building owner Ali Alkotaini had in October proposed using red LED bulbs in a lighted 19-foot-by-3-fot sign advertising Kratom, vape, cigar, hookah and grocery supplies at the outlet, which would be named “Planet Tobacco & Mart,” in violation of a zoning ordinance provision that mandates only internal white lights be used. Alkotaini and Kenneth Waggoner of Jacksonville, North Carolina-based K&L signs submitted a revised design on Oct. 25 eliminating the red LEDs and proposing white ones instead.

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“It meets all the requirements,” Commissioner Bill Davidson said.

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.” 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. The vote on the Planet Tobacco sign passed unanimously with Commissioner James Yoko absent.

Commissioner Randy Pack, and others, at the October meeting had said that while they weren’t excited about the prospect of another smoke shop coming to town, they were powerless to stop it as Smithfield’s zoning ordinance doesn’t distinguish between smoke shops and other retail sales establishments.

The proposed zoning ordinance change the planners voted to forward to Town Council with their unanimous recommendation for approval would make that distinction.

The proposed changes would define “recreational substances” as products made of tobacco, any noncombustible product containing nicotine or vaping fluid, hemp and raw materials made from hemp, Kratom and cannabidiol, also known as CBD.

Any business devoting 25% or more of its total inventory, or 15% or more of its total shelf space, to these products or the sale of any pipe, hookah, or similar device related to the inhalation of recreational substances would be classified as a recreational substance establishment, which would be prohibited in residential office zoning and permitted only by special use permit in all other commercial and industrial zoning designations.

The proposed language would allow the Planning Commission and Town Council to consider in its deliberations on each requested special use permit the site’s proximity “to schools, religious institutions, libraries, s, or other institutional uses, and residential uses.”

The language proposes a requirement that during all hours of operation, all glass portions of windows and doors along the front facade of a recreational substance establishment be transparent and not be heavily tinted or obscured – a provision aimed at making it easier to ensure no one frequenting the store is underage.

A new state law passed earlier this year sets a minimum age of 21 for the purchase of Kratom-based products. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Kratom is 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.

The proposed ordinance change would further prohibit smoking or vaping on the premises at any time unless the establishment compose with the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act.