The Planning Board on Tuesday night voted 7-1 to deny minor site plan approval for a smokeshop on East Milton Avenue, claiming that it is not consistent with the Central Business District’s (CBD) redevelopment plan or the city’s master plan.
The hearing was a continuation from the previous Planning Board meeting and largely focused on comments and questions from the public for about 30 minutes before the vote was taken. Attorney John DeNoia and applicant Harris Kahn of NK Smokeshop, Inc. presented some exhibits showing the type of signage that would be used for the retail shop, which would sell tobacco products, hookah, e-cigarette, cigars and cigarettes.
About 10 members of the public spoke, some Rahway residents and some who live outside of Rahway but work in the Rahway schools. Speakers were largely against the smoke shop, fearing that it would sell other illegal or synthetic drugs, and potentially expose children to drug paraphernalia.
“It’s very clear that it’s not just selling smoking paraphernalia,” said Kristine DeJesus-Farrar of Park Street. The Facebook page for applicant’s other store, Mad King Smoke Shop in Oceanside, N.Y., does not refer to traditional smoking culture, such as cigars or pipes, she said, but is littered with references to marijuana use and its benefits. She claimed it targets young people in the community and increased access to drugs can lead to increased use. “It’s outside the scope of what we’re looking to do as a community,” she said.
Fourth Ward Councilman David Brown said he’s seen what marijuana and synthetic drugs can do in a community, and encouraged the board “to have people listen to what we’d like to have done.” Residents also suggested it might discourage other potential merchants from the area, arguing that downtown is more in need of other businesses, such as a bakery. It’s unclear whether this particular space at 29 E. Milton Ave. could fit a bakery or have the requirements to house such a business. It previously was occupied by a kitchen and bath remodeling store.
No matter what kind of business someone would like to have at the site, the building has been vacant for four years, according to DeNoia. There are regulations and licenses – which his client has — and the police can determine if illegal activities are going on, he said. “The applicant before you is totally conforming, nothing is changing, and it fits your use. As much as I appreciate the comments, legally, they don’t hold any water,” he said.
Planning Board member Richard Watkins, also the city’s construction official, said the applicant had not been forthright from the start about what he would be selling. “It’s not a retail tobacco shop, verifiable by visiting its website and Facebook page. It’s a head shop,” he said, and that’s not in keeping with the CBD redevelopment plan or the city’s redevelopment goals.
DeNoia again argued that the permitted use is a legal issue. The Planning Board does not have the authority to determine use and the decision was made by the zoning officer to assign the application to the Planning Board, not the Zoning Board for a variance. “It’s not your decision as a board whether it’s a permitted use,” he said. The city zoning officer assigned it to the Planning Board, where it could not be if it was a nonconforming use.”
Planning Board Chairman Jeffrey Robinson cast the only vote against denying the application. While he had reservations about allowing this type of business, Robinson said it is still a legal business and was confident that the city would monitor it to ensure it complied with laws.
“Good luck finding a bakery,” Kahn quipped as he walked past the dais on his way out of Council Chambers after the hearing concluded.
Speaking after the hearing, DeNoia said he was unsure if his client would appeal. He will have 45 days after the board adopts a resolution at its next meeting, June 30, to file an appeal.