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Dave Roepke, Published October 16 2011

Moorhead councilman suggests new approach to smoke shop controversy

MOORHEAD – The City Council in August tabled a controversial ban aimed at outlawing the sale of pipes and other items police say are used as drug paraphernalia, delaying the vote for three months.

The decision to hold off, which could presumably push the vote until after city elections are held Nov. 8, came after a first reading of the ordinance was approved July 25 by a 6-1 tally. The delay split the council 4-4, with Mayor Mark Voxland breaking the tie in favor of waiting.

The councilman who suggested the three-month delay, Mark Altenburg, said last week he is likely to float a potential compromise that an owner of one of the affected shops said he could support.

“We’d avoid the big fight,” Altenburg said.

Instead of criminalizing sale or possession of specific items such as bongs and pipes, Altenburg is eyeing ordinances passed in other Minnesota cities that limit stores that get 90 percent or more of their revenue off tobacco-related products to property zoned industrial.

It’s similar to the way a number of municipalities have regulated pornographic bookstores. It wouldn’t apply to existing stores, but addressing the issue via zoning would give Moorhead a way to control future smoke shops as well as hookah bars – which are increasingly prevalent in Minnesota, Altenburg said.

Though a state smoking ban prohibits indoor puffing in businesses, there is a section of the law allowing sampling of smoke products at stores that have at least 90 percent of revenue stemming from tobacco.

“You’re trying to get ahead of the curve,” Altenburg said.

Altenburg said feedback from his constituents has run 10 to 1 against the ban, but he’s not sure how much support the zoning-based ordinance would garner on the City Council. He said he’d likely propose a six- or 12-month moratorium on new smoke shops to give city staff and council members time to draft and consider the law.

The paraphernalia ban was proposed by Police Chief David Ebinger and Matt Greenley, a Clay County prosecutor, after a pair of smoke shops opened downtown on Main Avenue, joining two shops already selling smoking-related items. Ebinger has said the ban, which is similar to a North Dakota state law, is a tool area law enforcement need.

Tom Tepley is the owner of one of the long-standing stores, Discontent, and he says if the ban is passed as it was first introduced, he will seek a petition-forced public vote on the city law. He’s also said he’ll fight the law in court if it’s enacted.

Tepley said neither are steps he’d relish taking.

“It would be very expensive for the city, and it would be very expensive for me,” he said. “It’s a waste of our time.”

Tepley said the tone he and others struck after the ordinance was put up for the first of two required council votes was confrontational mostly be­cause “I was kind of blindsided.”

“I will work with a zoning issue,” he said. “It solves a lot of problems without an out-and-out ban.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535