Saying that having a vacant storefront is better than having a smoke shop, Fresno city councilmembers announced a new ordinance to reduce the number of these stores by 70%.
Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias said the number of smoke shops selling tobacco products and drug paraphernalia has skyrocketed from two to 27 in his district in the past three years.
One estimate from Anil Kumar, owner of AK Smoke Shop in the Tower District said Fresno has nearly 400 stores in the city, up from 91 when he started 12 years ago.
Fresno City Councilmembers Annalisa Perea and Nelson Esparza presented the ordinance along with Arias.
Arias said smoke shops have brought along blight and crime. Unofficial inspections and calls for police service have uncovered illegal drug sales, online gambling, human trafficking, and sales to minors, Arias said.
“Smoke shops have presented themselves to be the worst possible use of physical space in the neighborhood,” Arias said. “So, I’d rather take a vacant building than one operating a smoke shop.”
City Council Wants to Reduce Smoke Shops by 70%
Defining a smoke shop was the city’s biggest challenge. Arias said it took two years to craft the ordinance.
Because they often sell snacks, many smoke shops opened with a grocery store business license, Arias said. The city has been encouraging more grocery stores to open, especially in underserved neighborhoods, and the smoke shops took advantage of that, he said.
The city will define smoke shops by the square footage of space dedicated to sales of tobacco, glass pipes, and bongs.
The ordinance would require all existing shops to apply for a conditional use permit. No more than two shops will be allowed per council district. Arias said there are 27 just in his district.
Stores would also have to adhere to a number of other restrictions, including hours of operation, no under-age admission, no loitering, and being at least 1,000 feet from other smoke shops and schools.
Violations would cost owners $1,000.
Arias said the ordinance would take effect 30 days after council approval. He hopes to have the ordinance take effect by the end of November.
Perea said she sees the ordinance as “primarily a public health and public safety initiative.
“As the councilmember of District 1, I will tell you that I will not surrender one more neighborhood corner to these types of businesses,” she said.
Perea said illegal activity surrounds these stores. A number of her constituents have told her they are now in debt because of gambling allowed at the stores.
“I do believe this type of industry has gone unregulated for far too long,” she said.
Permit Process Bound to be Highly Competitive
Kumar has owned AK Smoke Shop in the Tower District for 12 years. He had not heard about the city’s efforts to regulate smoke shops, nor had employees at three other smoke shops in the area.
He acknowledged that gambling and cannabis sales go on at some smoke shops.
“People do that, and people know who is doing it,” Kumar said.
Arias said many smoke shops opened with grocery store business licenses. Because of this, he anticipates city officials will have to go door to door to get the businesses to apply for a conditional use permit to continue operating.
Kumar said business at his store has slowed because of competition from the large number of smoke shops that have popped up.
He said he will do whatever it takes to stay in business.
“I have to stay in business, man, you have to do it the right way, whatever you’ve got to do, you’ve got to do,” Kumar said.
Three Years Since Crusade to Take Down Liquor Stores
In October 2020 the Fresno City Council approved the Responsible Neighborhood Market Act.
The RNMA required any new stores selling alcohol to first purchase another liquor license and retire it before they could open.
Arias, Esparza, and Fresno City Councilman Luis Chavez championed that ordinance.