The Planning Board is scheduled to continue a hearing Tuesday night for an application seeking to bring a smoke shop to a retail space adjacent to the train station.
Several board members raised concerns about the proposed business during the April 28 Planning Board meeting, when a hearing on the application was continued from its March meeting. The property at 29 E. Milton Ave. is among a stretch of storefronts and abuts the stairs to the northbound platform of the train station. It’s been been vacant for several years, previously occupied by a kitchen and bathroom remodeling business.
A smoke shop is a permitted use so no variances are required, however, any time there is a change in tenants, site plan approval is required, the applicant’s attorney, John DeNoia, told board members. About 97 percent of the lot is covered so there is no room to do anything other than the retail space and there are no site amenities, he said.
Harris Kahn operates a similar business in Oceanside, N.Y. and said he’s already been approved by New Jersey regulators for this location to sell tobacco products, hookah, e-cigarette, cigars and cigarettes. He would only need a local Certificate of Occupancy after Planning Board approval, he said.
Board member and city Construction Official Richard Watkins questioned the applicant whether he previously had come before the board under a different name, High Times, which was denied. Both applications were devised for the same reason, DeNoia said, but it was just as easy to come for site plan approval as it would have been to appeal the previous decision.
Kahn assured the board that the store would only sell water pipes and glass pipes for legal tobacco use — not bongs — though he said he can”t control how customers use the products. He told the board that he hasn’t decided on the name of the store; it might be the same name as his Oceanside site, Mad King Smoke Shop, but not High Times. There would be no smoking in the store, he said, which is not allowed by law.
Watkins said he doesn’t believe that the use meets the intended standards of the Central Business District’s (CBD) master plan. “That doesn’t mean you can’t do that elsewhere in the city,” he said, but downtown aims to attract “esoteric” retail around the train station that doesn’t fit in a mall environment. It didn’t come up during the hearing but sometimes these outlets are referred to as head shops.
DeNoia countered that the board cannot deny the application on the fact that the use is not permitted. “If it’s not permitted, we wouldn’t be here. The zoning officer determined this is the place to go,” he said, of the Planning Board. If there were use variances, the application would have gone to the Board of Adjustment, he said. “We’re not even dealing with a use issue at all here because the ordinance says we have to be here. We did not come here, we were assigned here,” DeNoia said. Watkins disagreed.
The applicant said at the previous meeting that he would comply with any sign ordinance, DeNoia said, but the board has the right to request to see anything.
Signage is an issue in this case given the nature of the products being sold, Chairman Jeffrey Robinson said.
Planning Board member Robert Simon had “serious reservations,” in spite of it being a permitted used because he was concerned about the type of business and how it would be marketed. “It raises many yellow flags for me,” he said, including the fact that the company initially applied under the name High Times. He would like to see how the shop plans to market and advertise itself since it could be detrimental to the city’s image, especially given its proximity to the train station, he said.
Board member Alex Shipley questioned why where was so much concern since there’s already a smoke shop on Irving Street (Smoker’s Den) and a bail bonds office down the street from this location. “If anything is going on that’s not supposed to, it’s an issue for the police,” he said.
“It’s a little different — a fine cigar store versus what is being proposed,” Simon said.
The applicant will provide mockups of signage to be used but DeNoia said he believes it’s beyond the scope of the site plan and the application is being treated differently for this particular reason. The board decided to carry the application to its next meeting, scheduled for May 26.
At its March meeting, the Planning Board had a major issue before it (Slokker/Main & Monroe) yet members had more questions for this applicant, Shipley said. He stressed that board members should be prepared with more questions than they’ve had, especially when there are major projects at hand.