Merchandise described by police as “illegal vape and THC products” was found at WP Convenience on Post Road East during an unannounced inspection last week. Some of the products featured flavors and packaging designed to resemble candy, police said.
Merchandise described by police as “illegal vape and THC products” was found at WP Convenience on Post Road East during an unannounced inspection in April. Some of the products featured flavors and packaging designed to resemble candy, police said.

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — New stores focused on vaping and related products might soon be snuffed by local zoners.

Members of the Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday held a discussion about the problems such shops have presented, and ultimately agreed to direct department staff to prepare a text amendment banning shops where 20 percent or more of the inventory is related to vaping, tobacco and the like.

It was the shortest discussion of the five-hour meeting, and not everyone agreed.

Members John Bolton and Paul Lebowitz had concerns.

Chairwoman Danielle Dobin began the discussion.

“Have you noticed an explosion of the number of smoke shops in Westport?” Dobin asked.

“Have you noticed that they consistently violate our sign regulations?” she said. “This was brought to my attention, and I know that typically we would look at the regs revision subcommittee and work through this in subcommittee, but given, I think, the obvious public health crisis with regard to vaping, and the aesthetic crisis with regard to the signage, etc., instead I did take the opportunity to ask [Planning and Zoning Director] Mary [Young] and the town attorney to prepare materials for this commission to understand whether or not, legally, we can actually prohibit smoke shops in Westport.”

Young asked for clarification if it was an amendment to ask for more stringent regulations or a prohibition.

Dobin said prohibition.

Paul Lebowitz.
Paul Lebowitz

“I definitely have an issue with that,” Lebowitz said, adding it was his understanding the issue was spurred by the behavior of a smoke shop across from Stop & Shop, perhaps referring to WP Convenience, which in April came under scrutiny of police.

“The Police Department has notified us that they are selling illegal products,” Lebowitz said. “They’re not allowed to do that by Planning and Zoning regulations, they’re taking it upon themselves to break the law. And so that’s a police matter and one that we should encourage vigilant activities and if we have to write regulations that if you’re going to be allowed to have a smoke shop these things are specifically prohibited.”

“To me that’s a violation that I wouldn’t wanna throw the entire group of smoke shops out the door,” Lebowitz said.

As for the issue of signs, Lebowitz said, advertising gimmicks such as an inflatable waving tube “was not because we have bad zoning, that’s because … it’s not added to our sign regulations that that is not encouraged.”

“I don’t like what they’re selling, and I don’t like who they’re selling it to, and I don’t like the way they’re selling it,” Lebowitz said. “But it is a legal use …”

‘While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about having a smoke shop, I feel like we’ve got enough of them in town.’

John olefson

John Olefson told Lebowitz he heard where he came from but had a different take.

John Olefson.
John Olefson

“While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about having a smoke shop, I feel like we’ve got enough of them in town,” Olefson said.

“I’m good,” he said. “Don’t need any more vape signs going up … I feel like we can put a pause on this one, stick a pin in it and if six months from now we feel there’s just a need for more smoke shops in town, we can change our regulations.”

“I feel like the only thing that we’re missing is like when you pull off the side of the highway in Iowa somewhere and there’s like an Adam & Eve store,” Olefson said. “And you’re sittin’ there like that’s what we need next to the smoke shop. So then the whole town would be like then, smoke shops, that stuff, maybe some extra nail salons. I don’t know. I’m pretty good.”

“Do we have to say ‘prohibit?’ ” Bolton asked. “Could we say something to the lines of restricting that activity, up through prohibition? That way we’re, you know, keeping ourselves open.”

‘I think we’re a little out of our lane with that. Because Cumberland Farms, a lot of those places, sell the same stuff. You’d be amazed.’

john bolton

“Because I think we’re a little out of our lane with that,” he said. “Because Cumberland Farms, a lot of those places, sell the same stuff. You’d be amazed.”

“I don’t think over 20 percent of the products they stock or sell are smoke products,” Dobin said of Cumberland.

“You can get into this issue of the gas stations can do it, but smoke shops can’t,” Bolton said.

John Bolton.
John Bolton

“That’s kind of the point,” Dobin said.

“If we have staff draft a text amendment, then would get a formal opinion from the Town Attorney’s Office,” Dobin said. “We don’t have to guess, we’ll know.”

The Town Attorney’s Office shared some initial research on the issue, saying municipalities are allowed to prohibit specific uses for properties, giving the examples of asphalt plants, gravel mines, liquor stores, gas stations and more. Read the memo here.

A P&Z staff report by Young listed four smoke shops, all on Post Road East. Read it here.

“If you say that the use of nicotine products should be prohibited in Westport, you will make national news,” Lebowitz said.

“We can debate it when we have a text amendment in front of us,” Dobin said. “So why don’t we buckle up for a very long discussion that night?”

She said she didn’t think Lebowitz had the votes to convince members not to make the recommendation.

‘I’m not trying to convince you. It’s a landmine and you’re about to step on it.’

paul lebowitz

“I’m not trying to convince you,” Lebowitz said. “It’s a landmine and you’re about to step on it.”

The next discussion of the matter is slated for Nov. 6.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.