The Laurel City Council voted to amend its zoning law last week, paving the way for a cigar lounge to open on Main Street.
The approved ordinance created a special exception allowing "tobacco retail and smoking lounge" to be a permitted use within certain commercial zones inside the city limits.
The ordinance was introduced to the council earlier last month and an amended version was passed on Nov. 24.
It was introduced at the request of Sha'ron Harris, who plans to open a cigar lounge called Aroma Lounge MD inside a two-story building at 604 Main St.
The law places a series of restrictions on the business, however, including an age requirement of 21 – the establishment will serve limited quantities of alcohol – and a limit of two live performances per month. An additional stipulation on performances is that the city's department of Community Planning and Business Services must be notified within seven days of a live band's scheduled performance.
A week earlier, on Nov. 18, the city's Planning Commission recommended the council deny the original petition because of concerns over loose restrictions on the business.
The commission recommended three key changes, all of which were implemented by the council. Two of the changes were the event restrictions and the age requirement – the previous version stated that patrons could be under 21 so long as they didn't purchase alcohol or tobacco.
The ordinance also restricts dancing at the business.
The Planning Commission suggestions removed the stipulation that the lounges' sale of pre-packaged food be limited to 20 percent of sales, the reason being it would be hard for the city to monitor, according to a staff report.
According to City Council President Edward Ricks, no one testified against the zoning change at the Nov. 24 public hearing, the second on the proposed law change.
Ricks said, however, that he and other council members heard privately from some who were concerned about the business.
"A couple people from different committees said maybe it wasn't the best move for us to take because the city had gone smokeless some time ago, and it was retreating back from that," Ricks said.
Ricks said the decision to approve the use was an economic one.
"We are trying to bring different things to Main Street that are going to be a success," he said. "It's us trying to work with people who are going to put their money in Laurel. We try to be as open minded about things as we possibly can while protecting the other citizens we have to protect."
Ricks said a sticking point for him and other council members was the age requirement of 21. He said he did not want underage children or teens accompanying age-eligible patrons into the business.
He said the age limit provision is "as tight as it can possibly be."
Ricks said, now that the law is in effect, Harris will have to go before the Planning Commission and through the city's approval process before she can open.
The building will have to be properly ventilated, Ricks said, and it must be up to the city's building code.
"The Planning Commission will make sure she does what she has to do and ... make sure what we have legislated is carried out on her application," he said.
The Laurel business would be Harris' first, although she said she has experience in the industry through a cigar line called "Fuerza Cigars." She said she intends to get a liquor license from Prince George's County.
She said the license will not allow for a bar at the establishment, but will allow for bottled wine and beer to be sold retail.
The age restriction is not an issue for Harris since she said she intends to attract upscale clientele. She added that there is no real competition in the region.
The ordinance allows for the retail sale of cigars, flavored tobacco, hookahs and accessories. According to the ordinance, hookah is "a water pipe used to smoke tea, herbs and flavored tobacco that can have single or multiple hoses."
Harris said hookahs will be a part of her business, but it won't be the focus since it tends to attract younger crowds.