Burlington’s municipal leaders are contemplating a new set of development rules that could take some of the wind out of an up-and-coming subclass of retail.
These proposed measures, which were formally presented to Burlington’s city council this week, would carve out a special zoning category in the city’s unified development ordinance to regulate vape shops, tobacco stores, and businesses that specialize in CBD oils and other cannabis-adjacent products.
According to Chad Meadows, a planning consultant in the city’s employ, the passage of these restrictions would add Burlington to a small, but growing, list of cities in North Carolina that are using their zoning authority to regulate vape shops and their kin.
“The purpose for these standards,” Meadows went on to explain during a city council work session on Monday, “is to limit unauthorized tobacco sales to minors…to limit the sale of what is sold as tobacco-related paraphernalia that might not end up being used as tobacco-related paraphernalia, and finally to protect neighboring property values.”
The rules of the trade
This proposed category, which Meadows dubbed “tobacco, CBD, and vape shops,” would apply to businesses that devote at least 500 square feet or 5 percent of their floor area to the sale or display of tobacco, vaping products, or CBD oils and other “hemp-derived” commodities that are permitted under state law. Meadows stressed that this proposed classification wouldn’t include cannabis or other items with high concentrations of THC, which remain illegal in North Carolina.
Meadows said that the rules he has proposed would impose both geographic and operational restrictions on these establishments, which have recently attracted heightened attention from the city’s police department due to growing concerns about smoking and vaping among the city’s school children.
For starters, these regulations would limit these businesses to conditional business districts, which Meadows said would all but ensure they go through the zoning process before they can open their doors. The rules would also demand that the affected businesses comply with all state licensure standards and subject them to spacing requirements that would keep them at least 1,000 feet from any schools, daycares, and other protected facilities.
In addition to these locational constraints, the proposed rules would also impose some restrictions on the operations of these businesses. According to Meadows, these limitations would include a ban on smoking inside the business and a prohibition on outdoor sales, which he said could make the wares more accessible to minors.
Meadows noted that these rules received a unanimous endorsement last week when they were presented to the city’s planning and zoning commission. He also emphasized that they’re deemed to be fully compatible with state regulations.
“This is not a use that’s heavily regulated in North Carolina” the consultant conceded. “But we’re not over-reaching here, so this is a good way to dip the proverbial toe into the regulation of these kinds of uses.”
This new zoning category for vape shops is one of more than two dozen changes that Meadows has advised Burlington’s leaders to make to the city’s unified development ordinance. These recommended adjustments come on the heels of a dozen similar rounds of revisions that this ordinance has seen since its adoption in the summer of 2019.
Among the other suggestions in this latest batch of amendments are a number of clarifications and purely technical changes that would have a nominal impact on the city’s development rules. Other recommendations are more substantive in nature. These items include a number of parking-related provisions – one of which would relax the parking quota for bars, cocktail lounges, and microbreweries. Another proposal would nix a bicycle parking requirement for car washes and auto detailing services; while a third would reduce the minimum width for perpendicular parking spaces from 10 to 9 feet.
Meadows conceded that the last of these parking-related proposals is a byproduct of a change in state statue, whose prudence he questioned after it raised some concerns from the council.
“But that is the wisdom of Jones Street,” he added. “So we have to comply.”
Another item that the consultant shared with the council would give the owners of vacant parcels some relief from the lawn maintenance chores that they currently have under the city’s municipal codes. Meadows said that this “reforestation” provision would allow thicker, more naturalistic plant cover as long as the property owner submits a formal plan to the city and then manages the growth as spelled out in the plan.
“It always requires a plan,” Meadows went on to explain, “and it always requires city approval. So, if you fail to mow your property, and you don’t have a reforestation plan in place, you’re going to get cited.”