ZBA to continue reviewing hookah lounges as use variances

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published October 30, 2012

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When it comes to addressing hookah lounges, the Zoning Board of Appeals will make do with guidance from the Planning Department versus pursuing additional direction from City Council.

In August, ZBA members voted to draw up a resolution asking council members to supply firm guidelines on where, zoning-wise, hookah lounges can set up shop, and other characteristics, like hours of operation.

With the proper certificate, a hookah lounge can qualify as a tobacco specialty retail store, a category eligible for exemption from the Michigan workplace smoking ban.

However, when Sterling Heights’ ordinances were written decades ago, hookah lounges weren’t on the radar. Therefore, they don’t appear among permissible uses for any zoning designation — meaning they’re prohibited without a ZBA-approved use variance.

Yet the city-determined criteria the ZBA traditionally uses to evaluate such requests — such as whether there’s a hardship preventing development of the property as zoned — doesn’t really apply, which has made consideration of such cases perplexing.

In lieu of formal direction from council, City Planner Don Mende prepared a list of somewhat comparable businesses to aid ZBA members.

Based on the defining characteristics of a hookah lounge, Mende said, he sifted through the ordinance and hashed out the zoning designations, requirements and restrictions for uses with similar attributes, including parking space and residential setback minimums.

Examples he listed included restaurants, bowling alleys, banquet halls and indoor recreation areas, like ice rinks and gymnastics arenas.

“The comparisons being, the customers are there for a good length of time, and it’s more of an assembly use,” said Mende, noting that, as with those establishments, a hookah lounge may draw patrons from a wider geographical area than just the surrounding neighborhood.

Mende said he met with Assistant City Attorney Don DeNault, ZBA Chairman Derek D’Angelo and two other ZBA members to work through the list.

In an email D’Angelo said he was “very pleased” with Mende’s suggestion for administrative direction and believes the ZBA is “the right venue” for hookah lounges seeking a use variance.

“It allows the board a lot of discretion to make sure that the requested variance will be a correct fit in the specific location requested, which gives us the opportunity to be sure the residents’ interests are protected,” he said. “It also allows the board the flexibility to pass a variance for a business if the circumstances and situation fits.”

At the ZBA’s last meeting, a motion to approve a use variance request by Laith Korkis of Social Café LLC to accommodate a hookah lounge on Mound, south of Fox Hill, fell 5-2 after about two hours of discussion and debate.

Korkis’ attorney, Robert Rollinger, said the establishment would serve only bottled water and juice products, not food, per the smoking law. There would be no outdoor seating, and loitering would be discouraged; there also would be no sound system installed, and the walls would be sound-proofed, he said.

Rollinger said he had more than 70 letters from nearby residents expressing support for the lounge.

Audience members who spoke included staunch opponents of hookah lounges in general, along with nearby residents specifically balking at Korkis’ proposal.

Judy Steffens, president of the Fox Hill Condominium Association, said they’re concerned about traffic, noise and loitering, as well as inability to adequately monitor the activities conducted inside.

“I understand it’s a social atmosphere, and I just don’t believe our area is the appropriate place for it,” she said. “It’s a small community.”

Referring to the petitions Rollinger mentioned, she added, “He says he’s got 72 people that said they agree to it. Nobody knocked on my door. In our subdivision, I’m sure there’s more than 200 homes in that area.”

Referring to Mende’s list for reference, D’Angelo pointed out that other uses at which patrons might convene for extended periods of time are required to be anywhere from 50-300 feet from residential areas based on Sterling Heights’ ordinance.

For instance, the code calls for bowling alleys to be set back at least 100 feet away from residential property; fast food restaurants, 300 feet; movie theaters, 75 feet; and traditional restaurants and social clubs, 50 feet, he said.

As proposed, Korkis’ hookah lounge would be 94 feet from residential zoning, he added.

“The concerns of the location and the building, the landlord … are some of the issues that I think we’re struggling with — the closeness to residential, and whether this is the right spot for the hookah lounge within Sterling Heights,” said D’Angelo.

Another hookah proposal that had been postponed after much discussion from the August meeting was pulled from the Sept. 27 agenda at the request of the petitioner, Maher Shallal.

In terms of future ZBA meetings, Mende said the list may not even end up being all that critical. Despite a flurry of requests in recent months, as of early October, there were no additional hookah lounge petitions pending, he said.

The ZBA’s October meeting has been canceled; the board is scheduled to meet again Nov. 15.

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