Despite concerns around enforcement and liability, Millbrae officials officially stamped out smoking in apartments and multi-unit dwellings under a decision intended to limit exposure to secondhand smoke.

The Millbrae City Council voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Annie Oliva opposing, to put the finishing touches on an apartment and multi-unit dwelling smoking ban, according to video of the meeting Tuesday, July 9.

While all councilmembers generally supported the intent of the measure which has grown in popularity across the Peninsula, differences of opinion over enforcement clouded the final decision.

For her part, Oliva expressed discomfort with details of the ordinance which disallow smoking in owner-occupied units, claiming officials are infringing on private property rights. Her colleagues though disagreed, and claimed the health benefits offered to neighbors should be observed ahead of home ownership privileges.

“We are talking about public health here,” said Mayor Wayne Lee. “We have to take a stance. I think that is more important than property rights.”

Vice Mayor Reuben Holober agreed, countering Oliva’s claim that homeowner associations should have the authority to establish policies for tenants regarding smoking, if so desired.

“I understand your concern for private property rights, but I think what trumps that is the right of the person next door to not have smoke coming in through their vent,” he said.

Ultimately, after more than an hour of deliberating, councilmembers approved the policy as initially recommended. Those renting apartments or living in condominiums are banned from smoking or vaping any substance in their units. Violators would likely face fines between $100 and $250, but exemptions will be offered to those living in privately operated duplex or triplex developments. The ban is slated to take place in January, which would grant smokers a chance to find a new place to live if necessary.

With the decision, Millbrae joined a growing county group where such bans have been approved. Many other neighboring communities have already passed smoking restrictions, with hopes of preventing exposure to secondhand smoke, and the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury prompted those without a similar policy to establish one.

Millbrae officials also deliberated over enforcement strategies, and initially questioned whether landlords should be held accountable for tenants who refused to adhere to the policy.

Oliva too strongly opposed such a recommendation, claiming instead the matter should be referred to code enforcement and solely target tenants who smoke in their units.

Her colleagues ultimately agreed, while also steering clear of any policy which could invite additional lawsuits or the threat of retribution between neighbors who do not get along and might file smoking complaints as a means of getting even.

“I don’t want to create a system that encourages people to sue each other,” said Councilwoman Gina Papan.

To comply with the new policy, landlords are required to post signs declaring smoking is prohibited in rooms and write into the lease the mandate as well. A landlord may only be held accountable if they do not take action when a tenant is reported to be smoking in their room.

Councilmembers also agreed future discussion should be revived to address potential requirements around offering smoking areas on multi-unit properties, and also a more broad discussion of smoking in public.

“They need to go somewhere to not feel like criminals,” said Councilwoman Ann Schneider, regarding smokers.

But for the immediate term, most agreed approving the initial ban was a wise decision and future amendments or specific details can be revised down the road.

“We have to start somewhere and this is a very good step,” said Holober.

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