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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Despite Concerns, Burlington Advances Church Street Smoking Ban

Taylor Dobbs
Some Burlington city councilors argue that the proliferation of outdoor seating has turned Church Street into an outdoor cafe that should be smoke-free.

The Burlington City Council voted Monday to move forward with a proposal to ban smoking on Church Street despite unanswered questions – and numerous councilor concerns – about the proposed ordinance.

Smoking is now allowed on Church Street, and clusters of smokers frequently stand outside the many restaurants, bars and retail businesses. Under the proposed ordinance, referred Monday to the city council’s ordinance committee, a person smoking on Church Street at any hour of the day could be fined $50.

The 14-1 vote included a number of councilors who approved the move to refer the ban to committee but are undecided or against a ban on smoking on the street.

Councilors Vince Brennan and Karen Paul – both former smokers – were co-sponsors of the ordinance. Both say they want to promote public health and make Church Street a more welcoming environment by banning smoking.

“We can’t keep adults from their choice to smoke,” Paul said. “But I do think that we can legislate protecting the rights of others who don’t want to participate, and don’t want to breathe in what we know are known carcinogens.”

The proposed ordinance follows a survey conducted by the Church Street Marketplace District Commission, which indicated wide support for a smoking ban. Supporters pointed to the survey as a mandate to institute a ban while others said the survey’s methodology was flawed and designed to generate support.

The owner of a popular upscale restaurant voiced concerns that the ordinance would make Church Street less welcoming. Multiple city councilors voiced concern that the ban would reduce city revenue.

"At this point, let's make it clear: No smoking on Church Street." - City Councilor Dave Hartnett

Bob Conlon, owner of Leunig’s Bistro, said he is opposed to a ban. He spoke about a friendly conversation he had with a lunch customer as she smoked a cigarette.

“I don’t want to tell that lady she can’t step outside and have a cigarette at lunchtime,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of reasons why people might avoid going to the marketplace. I don’t think cigarette smoke is the number one reason. I think beggars, panhandlers, foul-mouth shouting keeps more people away from the marketplace than the occasional whiff of tobacco.”

Councilor Dave Hartnett, who has voiced opposition to more broad smoking bans to cover the downtown area, was enthusiastic about the ban. He offered an amendment that would remove time constraints on the ban, which was originally drafted to ban smoking on the street from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“At this point, let’s make it clear: No smoking on Church Street, the marketplace, the brick,” Hartnett said, proposing a 24-hour ban on smoking on Church Street.

Among Hartnett’s chief concerns: The fact Church Street has effectively become “an outdoor café,” with many restaurants and cafes providing outdoor seating for customers.

Hartnett’s amendment passed 8-6.

Critics of the ordinance say it will move smoking off Church Street and cause secondhand smoke elsewhere downtown. They also voiced concerns that a smoking ban would hurt businesses on the street.

Councilor Selene Colburn called for a predictive analysis of the potential financial impacts – positive or negative – of a ban.

Councilor Kurt Wright was concerned the ordinance could threaten the success of Church Street businesses. He said his questions about the impacts of a ban hadn’t yet been answered.

“I think we should not be taking chances with the success of Church Street Marketplace,” he said.

Mayor Miro Weinberger said the ordinance needs a “careful look,” but didn’t voice opposition to the plan on Monday.

Progressive Councilor Max Tracy had other concerns. He said claims that a ban would make Church Street more welcoming raised a question for him: “Who is it welcoming to?”

Tracy said he worries the ordinance will ban people the city views as “undesirable” and effectively “Disney-ify” Church Street.

The council’s ordin committee will now take up the proposal for discussion and to gather additional input before the ban is presented again to the full council. 

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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