Union City mulls lifting tobacco sales buffer for gas stations

(March 1, 2012)

Two of the City Council's top priorities -- economic development and helping make the city smoke-free -- are coming into conflict as officials consider giving gas stations a pass for selling tobacco products near youth-oriented establishments.

The issue arose after a local gas station owner, Sanjiv Patel, complained that the regulation was hurting his business.

The city's other gas stations already have been "grandfathered in" and are allowed to sell tobacco products. The Shell service station at 33365 Mission Blvd., however, had been shuttered for a year before Patel reopened it in December 2010, and he didn't qualify for the exemption.

"At present, we are at a competitive disadvantage with Hayward and other locations," he said. "It's not just affecting our profitability, actually; it's a question of our survival."

Patel says that in his experience, tobacco products make up 40 percent of inside sales for gas stations.

In January 2010, the council prohibited the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a park, playground, public library, recreation center, religious institution, school or other youth-oriented establishment.

Patel's station is about 450 feet from the Tri-City AME Church on E Street.

Robert Ash, a member of the church's pastoral team, encouraged council members Tuesday night to keep the anti-smoking buffer as is.

"That was a very good idea to have that ordinance in the first place, and it's a very bad idea to remove it," he said. "Our children are our most precious resource, and their health and their surroundings and influences should be paramount to us, and we shouldn't be compromising on that."

Staff presented council members with four options to help Patel's business: removing religious institutions from the ordinance; reducing the buffer to 400 feet; removing the buffer requirement; and exempting service stations from the requirement.

None of those changes would affect the "A" grade the city received from the American Lung Association after council members passed a slew of anti-smoking measures in November 2010.

Still, the association encouraged council members not to change the ordinance.

"Union City is at the top of the pack. It's at the lead. It's showing the other cities in this county how we protect our children, how we do the right thing," said Serena Chen, the association's policy director. "And the real test of doing the right thing is doing the right thing when it hurts. If it was easy to do the right thing, there would be no sinners. ... Moral fiber is when you are tested, not when it's easy."

Council members acknowledged opponents' concerns but said they have to balance them with the danger of having the station go out of business on a street corner that used to be blighted by crime and graffiti.

"I have a lot of concerns about eliminating the business' ability to be successful and going back to a place where we have crime and a gap in our economic development," Councilwoman Emily Duncan said. "I'm concerned about our churches; I definitely think they need to be on the list. ... We need to make sure that we find a win-win for everyone."

Ultimately, council members asked staff to explore the possibility of removing gas stations from the buffer zone. The item likely will go before the Planning Commission in April before returning to the council in May.

"I think it's a surgical way of providing that business an opportunity to continue to be viable," Councilman Lorrin Ellis said.

Silicon Valley Mercury News