Just two years after setting new restrictions for tobacco sales, the City of Union City may make exemptions to its 1,000-feet tobacco sales buffer.
Sanjiv Patel, owner of the Shell gas station at 33365 Mission Blvd., urged officials Tuesday night to reconsider regulations established by a January 2010 zoning ordinance that prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of “sensitive uses” such as parks, playgrounds, public libraries, churches, schools and youth centers.
The zoning rules were adopted “for the protection of public health, safety and welfare of children." The buffer, which is set higher than most other Bay Area cities, covers almost all of the city’s commercial areas, staff said.
Though no immediate action was taken Tuesday night, the Council asked city staff to examine the impact of allowing gas stations to be exempt from the buffer — a matter that left some community members concerned.
Patel’s business, which opened last March at a previously vacant gas station site and is the first new business to challenge the sales restrictions, is located 450 feet from the located at 201 E Street.
“In my opinion, we are opening a place for our children and our young people where they can go and ruin their health,” said Nancy Eady, a member of the church and president of the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society in the Tri-City area. “We’re going to make it more available and easier to get.”
Other church and community members said that offering exemptions or, worse, reducing the buffer or removing churches from the list of sensitive sites — two of several options weighed and shot down by city officials — would not only put children at risk but put the city on a slippery slope.
“At the sake of profits, we’re willing to change [the ordinance]?” said church member Renee Ash. “You start with tobacco, with churches — what’s next? Parks? Alcohol?”
Members of health agencies also urged officials not to make any changes to its policies.
Due to the city’s efforts to restrict tobacco sales and smoking, Union City jumped from a “D” to .
“We are here to protect our children,” said Serena Chen, a policy director for the American Lung Association. “We teach them in the schools, we teach them at home, but we need the entire community to support us.”
According to Janice Louie, a program specialist for the Alameda County Public Health Department, tobacco is the number one killer in the county accounting for 17 percent of all deaths each year.
She said gas stations are of particular interest because 47 percent of underage youth nationwide reported buying cigarettes at gas stations.
But Patel’s gas station is just one of more than 10 within the city and is located just down the street from a liquor store and another gas station.
Patel said that he’s been left with an unfair disadvantage due to the city’s restrictions.
“By adding one more location, it’s not going to make a tremendous difference to the city, but it does for our competitiveness,” Patel told the Council. “It’s not affecting our profitability, it’s a matter of surviving.”
While existing tobacco retailers were “grandfathered” in and allowed to operate after the sales buffer took affect, Patel’s is the only gas station in Union City not allowed to sell tobacco products, despite the previous owners having sold them. Because the gas station was left vacant for a year before he purchased it, Patel had to apply for a new use permit under the new tobacco sales laws.
Patel, who has been in the convenience store industry for eight years and operates several service stations throughout the Bay Area, said tobacco sales are a major revenue generator.
According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, tobacco sales account for more than 30 percent of sales at gas station convenience stores.
Patel said many customers combine gas and cigarette purchases. Not being able to sell cigarettes dissuades them from stopping at his station and impacts gas sales, he said.
As a result, he’s had to lay off an employee and reduce hours for another, eliminating the night shift.
Being open later would benefit the community because of its prominent location on the corner of Mission Boulevard and Whipple Road, he added.
“If it’s open at night, it’s well-lit and will deter crime,” Patel said, noting that the station was run down with burned pumps, graffiti, trash and broken lights when he purchased it.
City officials acknowledged that there was a lot of crime, including drug sales and prostitution, in the area when the building was left vacant.
“I don’t think any of us particularly enjoyed the eyesore that it was,” Council member Lorrin Ellis said.
Ultimately officials agreed that the best solution would be one that benefits both the business community and the interests of the residents.
“What we don’t want to do is put a business out of business in Union City, and we don’t want to send a message to the city that we don’t value our youth,” Council member Emily Duncan said.
Though Council members were mixed about which direction to take, they all agreed that some changes needed to be made to the city's policy.
“We’re a friendly city for small business and I want to keep that. I also want to keep the buffer,” Jim Navarro said before adding that he’d support an exemption for gas stations.
Allowing an exemption for gas stations would have the lowest impact, city staff said.
“You wouldn’t be opening up the floodgates for tobacco retailers,” city planner Avalon Schultz said, noting that there was limited space in the city for additional gas stations.
The planning commission will reexamine the tobacco zoning text in April and another report should be presented to City Council in May, staff said.