Legislation defining and regulating hookah lounges is expected to be introduced March 28 at Hilliard City Council.

Legislation defining and regulating hookah lounges is expected to be introduced March 28 at Hilliard City Council.

"It is incumbent upon us that we define and regulate it more appropriately," law director Tracy Bradford told members of the planning, projects and services committee March 14.

Hookah lounges are not mentioned in city code and any new code cannot be retroactively applied to Hilliard's only such establishment, Twin's Cafe Hookah Lounge, 3891 Main St., which opened in September, Bradford said.

"There is no mention of hookah lounges or vapor lounges in our code at all so we want to define it," she said.

The proposed new code defines hookah lounges as "any facility (whose) primary use ... is devoted to the on-premise smoking of tobacco (or) any synthetic material." The new code also defines vapor lounges.

It would prohibit both in any residential area and would make them a conditional use in the city's four business-zoning districts and the Old Hilliard mixed-use district.

It would prohibit minors, and limit hours of operation from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, or as may be provided elsewhere in the code.

No lounges would be permitted within 500 feet of any school, church, public park or other lounge.

A ventilation system is required, as well as multilanguage signs recommend by the World Health Organization, concerning the possible detrimental health effects of smoking.

Twin's Cafe opened last year as a permitted use in the Old Hilliard mixed-use district, according to city planner John Talentino.

Because the city code doesn't address hookah lounges -- neither prohibiting nor regulating them -- Talentino said, the lounge was a permitted use by virtue of other "similar uses" that are permitted in the Old Hilliard district.

Those similar uses included retail, restaurant and personal services, Talentino said, adding that of the three, the lounge is most similar to restaurant uses.

The hookah lounge serves food and people gather there, similar to a restaurant, and it sells tobacco-related products, meeting the definition of a retail use, Talentino said.

Twin's Cafe does not have a liquor license and therefore is not subject to any restrictions on hours of operation, Bradford said.

According to city officials, Twin's Cafe closes at 3 a.m. but allows existing patrons to linger.

Zaid Abunijim, owner of Twin's Cafe, said last month he typically closes at 3 a.m. but allows customers inside to remain awhile.

"I don't (immediately) kick them out," he said.

Police Chief Robert Fisher said officers have responded to several complaints of loud noise at the location, but only one warning was issued on Presidents Day weekend.

Another call concerned people talking and engines starting at the business.

"Normal conversation isn't going to rise to decibel-level (of violating the noise limit)," Fisher said.

Many of the complaints generated from a single source, according to city officials.

Although hours of operation cannot be applied retroactively to Twin's Cafe, other issues in existing law are being addressed, Bradford said.

Service director Butch Seidle said the city is aware and that the owner is working to construct a concrete pad for a trash bin and enclose it, as city code requires.

"We have issued a notice, (and) we are working with them like we would any other business," Seidle said. "We give them an opportunity to fix (the problem)."

City officials said a parking lot would be built in the back of the property this spring and is expected to reduce parking congestion and such incidents as damaging an adjacent fence that occurred recently.

Councilman Al Iosue, chairman of the committee, said it is an "unfortunate circumstance" the city did not define such lounges sooner.

"A lot more discussion is required, ... but I want to have something sooner than later," he said, even if it means approving basic regulations that council could amend later. "I don't want others to open (before we have something in place)."

Council President Nathan Painter said making lounges a condition use rather than a permitted use is the most important first step.

On a related note, Council Vice President Kelly McGivern said she wants city leaders to explore separate legislation that would increase the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase tobacco products in Hilliard.