We go in there and (document) enough (underage) buys to revoke a license, and they just sell the business. Someone else applies for the license, and they just keep it open. … You don't shut it down. They just continue to do business as if there was never a violation in place. —Centerville Police Chief Neal Worsley
CENTERVILLE — Sandwiched between a pair of cellphone providers and just a few rows of parking away from a pancake house, a tenant at the Centerville Marketplace advertises "cigars, hookah, gifts and more" on a storefront sign.
City leaders and law enforcement officials say the Smoke Shop at 356 N. Marketplace Drive is out of place, and they want to prevent other tobacco retailers from setting up shop in the city.
"It's been a continuous problem for our police department," City Manager Steve Thacker said of Centerville's lone smoke shop.
The city is considering an all-out ban on tobacco retailers, which would be the first of its kind in Utah, but likely not the last. Municipalities throughout the state are working to revise zoning for such establishments to comply with a new state law that went into effect July 1.
A bill passed during the 2012 Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert in March requires businesses that want to primarily sell tobacco or smoking paraphernalia to obtain a "tobacco specialty business license," which sets standards for where and how they can operate.
"The thought was we really needed to restrict (smoke shops) and where (municipalities) could put them to keep them away from children and families," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who sponsored HB95.
The bill sets proximity restrictions on smoke shops to prevent them from locating near schools, libraries, parks and other community areas. The regulations are similar to those on establishments that sell alcohol, though they're even more restrictive.
"If you look at the clientele at tobacco shops, they're not exactly the best people. They're buying drugs for crying out loud," Ray said, referring to shops that have "thumbed their noses" at the state's ban on selling spice.
"Tobacco shops are much more dangerous to a community than a liquor store is," he said.
Ray's bill lists more than a dozen community locations that require a 1,000-foot buffer between smoke shops, including schools, child-care facilities, churches, libraries, parks, youth centers and recreation facilities.
Tobacco specialty shops also must be at least 600 feet from residential and agricultural areas, according to HB95.
Centerville intends to take that one step further and close its borders to tobacco retailers.
"Rather than carving out a small area in the industrial zone, (city leaders) just decided to say, 'You know what? Let's not allow them anywhere because they don't fit in our community,'" Cory Snyder, Centerville's community development director, said.
Snyder said Centerville is a bedroom community with narrow strips of shops and businesses surrounded by residences, eliminating most of the city from being able to accommodate tobacco specialty retailers under the new law.
Even in the city's industrial area west of I-15, residential uses have been introduced, he said, citing the Legacy Crossing development, with its 150-plus apartments near the Megaplex Theatres.
The city's general plan also calls for mixed-use development — including residences — at Shorelands Commerce Park on the north side of the industrial area.
"When you start adding all of those in, along with the parks, the trails and the residential areas, it's a very narrow place that you could probably put them in," Snyder said.
The Centerville Planning Commission has made a recommendation to the City Council to prohibit new smoke shops from opening in the city. If approved by the council next month, tobacco retailers would join tattoo parlors, taverns and social clubs as businesses that are heavily regulated by the state and banned in Centerville.
City attorney Lisa Romney said cities have the power to exclude certain uses in zoning, though she acknowledged that banning smoke shops could potentially be challenged in court.
To justify the ban, Centerville has to show a "substantial relationship" between smoke shops and the public health, safety and welfare, Romney said.
City leaders say current and future development patterns, along with problems police and business licensing officials have had with the city's lone smoke shop, are sufficient grounds for the ban.
"This is a new direction," Romney said, noting that the state law is less than a month old. "We acknowledge it's legally suspect, but we're hoping there's sufficient findings regarding the substantial relationship between the regulation (of smoke shops) and the public health, safety and welfare."
Under the new state law, the Smoke Shop would be allowed to continue to operate — no matter what restrictions the city puts in place — as long as it maintains its business license.
But that, too, is a topic of controversy.
Romney said the Smoke Shop is involved in a "pending enforcement action for code violations."
Centerville Police Chief Neal Worsley confirmed that an investigation is under way, though he declined to disclose the nature of the alleged violations.
"There's something going on there," Worsley said. "It's still being investigated."
In April 2011, the Smoke Shop was shut down by the Davis County Health Department for selling tobacco to minors. At the time, health department director Lewis Garrett said he'd never seen "such a blatant disregard for the law and selling tobacco to minors."
Since then, the shop re-opened under new ownership, keeping the same name. Worsley said it's a pattern the city wants to break.
"We go in there and (document) enough (underage) buys to revoke a license, and they just sell the business," he said. "Someone else applies for the license, and they just keep it open. … You don't shut it down. They just continue to do business as if there was never a violation in place."
Under the new state law, if the Smoke Shop were to have its license revoked, it would no longer be exempt from the additional restrictions and would not be allowed at its current location.
And if the City Council enacts an outright ban on smoke shops, it wouldn't be allowed to reopen elsewhere in the city.
Attempts to contact the owner of the Smoke Shop for comment were unsuccessful. However, employees said the shop takes selling to minors very seriously. A sign on the front door of the shop informs potential patrons that they must be 19 or older with a valid ID to enter the store.
On the counter where customers make purchases, there are five signs or stickers informing patrons their ID will be checked.
Employees at neighboring businesses said they haven't had any problems with the shop's new owners or its clientele.