Andrew Cathey and Mike Lee smoke a hookah and enjoy a meal at Waterfront Pizza in Foster City.
As the Foster City Council continues to mull over changes to its decades-old smoking ordinance, a unique restaurant owner fears the latest proposal could eventually put him out of business.
The council has changed the proposal several times since it first considered creating more stringent regulations to protect the public from secondhand smoke last year. The council agrees to ban smoking in parks, public streets and special events but councilmembers are divided on when to regulate private property. Smoking could be prohibited in rental apartments, but condo or homeowners would be allowed to smoke on their property including the sidewalk.
At its June 16 meeting, the council voted to include a new provision that would affect Waterfront Pizza, a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge with an outdoor patio against the water at the Edgewater Shopping Center. It’s the only restaurant in the city that makes use of the current ordinance’s allowance to designate up to 50 percent of its outdoor seating area as smoking.
As an anomaly, the restaurant was discussed at length during prior council meetings and in earlier versions of the proposed ordinance was granted an exemption. However, after a 3 to 2 vote June 16, the current rendition of the proposal has Waterfront’s exemption sunset after three years.
“Any ordinance is up for discussion so at the end of the three years, it sunsets. So if they want to bring it up again, then the current council (at that time) would discuss it and decide if they want to allow it to happen or not happen,” Councilman Steve Okamoto said. “I don’t think it’s easy, but I think in the long run it’s done for the best interests and health of the residents of Foster City.”
Waterfront Pizza has been at the Edgewater Shopping Center for 25 years. It has a long-term lease and nearly $500,000 was invested over the past four years to expand and remodel the restaurant, said owner Isam Halteh.
Isam said about 75 percent of his business relies on its ability to serve hookah between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. and worries the new ordinance could force them to close.
“I think without the hookah, Waterfront will not exist anymore because it is a big part of our restaurant to serve the hookah. It’s part of the culture,” Halteh said. “The thing I don’t understand, is there’s so many hearings going on and every time we go, they (council) say ‘OK, this is it.’ And at least two of the meetings we went to, they agreed to keep it because it’s a private property.”
Councilman Herb Perez said his preference would be to ban smoking everywhere in Foster City, but because large businesses like Gilead Sciences and Visa would be allowed to set up designated smoking sections for their employees, Waterfront Pizza should also be given an exemption because people have the choice not to patronize the restaurant.
“If you’re trying to prevent secondhand smoke and it’s evil, then you prevent it and you prevent it by people unknowingly being subjected to someone smoking. When you have private property, though, and private property owners make a decision to create a smoking area, then you can choose as a person either to either access their private property or not,” Perez said. “Why are we treating a differently situated private property differently? And that’s the thing that’s really concerning to me.”
Okamoto said the priority is to prevent people from being exposed to secondhand smoke and outdoor seating at a public shopping center is very different than a large corporate campus.
“I think it’s apples and oranges because we’re talking about a restaurant that serves food. So I don’t think there’s a valid comparison,” Okamoto said. “They were successful before they had hookahs so I’m sure ... they’ll find ways to maintain their revenues.”
Mayor Charlie Bronitsky has said he takes issue with government overstepping its bounds.
“I also voted against the ordinance initially as I believe that it goes too far in invading people’s rights in their home. As to Waterfront, other businesses are entitled to have designated smoking areas and I think Waterfront should be as well, since the smoking area is totally within private property and the public does not need to access that area,” Bronitsky wrote in an email.
Halteh said hookah is only allowed during restricted times and in a fixed spot. Halteh said people don’t have to pass the smoking section and many of his customers travel to Foster City and his restaurant because they offer hookah.
Andrew Cathey, an East Bay resident, and Mike Lee, a Sonoma resident, said they visit Foster City just to patronize Waterfront.
“I think a lot of people already know it’s a hookah spot,” Cathey said. “You don’t have to walk through here. We’re not bothering anybody.”
Councilman Gary Pollard said Waterfront Pizza was never promised an exemption and the current version of the ordinance provides a compromise to at least get something passed.
“Waterfront is just this misnomer that’s out there,” Pollard said. “Hopefully you make the right decision for the greatest amount of people. When I took my vote we gave them three years and it still leaves them an opportunity to be revisited. Really, I just think it’s an emotional issue.”
The Foster City Council will hold a public hearing to discuss its proposed smoking ordinance at a July 21 council meeting. For more information visit www.fostercity.org.
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