The Costa Mesa Planning Commission on Monday evening recommended instituting a citywide moratorium on new hookah lounges, a move that conflicts with city staff's advice to ban the establishments entirely.
The 4-1 decision — with Commissioner Colin McCarthy dissenting — doesn't affect the three permitted lounges already open, but does put the spotlight on them as city officials examine residents' complaints and code enforcement actions associated with the parlors.
The commissioners who approved the decision said they felt wary about a ban, but considered a moratorium an appropriate compromise as further examination is carried out.
Commissioner Jeff Mathews stressed the need to balance a business owner's right to operate versus the rights of residents, some of whom have said the lounges are noisy and detrimental to their quality of life.
The parlors are not formally defined as a separate type of business and are subject to the same land use, zoning and operational standards as food and beverage establishments. Those restrictions include considerations of noise, traffic, parking, operating hours and entertainment.
City staff said problems associated with the lounges have included excessive noise, loitering, apparent alcohol violations, fire hazards, unpermitted operating hours and live entertainment. Since 2010, police have responded to calls — 243 total — involving all of the city's hookah parlors, according to city staff.
Costa Mesa's three permitted hookah parlors — Bublyz Hookah Lounge, 3303 Bristol St.; Harbor Hookah Lounge, 440 Fair Drive; and Sultana Hookah Lounge, 698 W. 19th St. — have each received as many as four citations for operating past 11 p.m. Because of the repeated noncompliance, those cases have been forwarded to the city attorney's office for further review and possible legal action, according to the city.
Unpermitted hookah smoking at a fourth establishment was stopped, city officials said.
Hookas are instruments for vaporizing and smoking flavored tobacco.
Representatives from the American Lung Assn. and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network were among the supporters of a ban. During Monday's meeting, they cited the hookahs' ill effects on public health, including the dangers associated with secondhand smoke.
The owners of Bublyz and Harbor lounges testified about their investments in their businesses and need to make a living. With them was Newport Beach resident Anahid Arakelian, owner of Titanium Hookah Lounge in Anaheim. She urged regulation but not an outright ban.
She also stressed that smoking a hookah is a long-standing tradition among Lebanese and other cultures.
Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick said he wanted more information on the existing parlors and the types of citations they've been receiving.
"There's a level of complaints that I'm uncomfortable with concerning our current operators," he said.
McCarthy noted that senior residents of the Tower on 19th — formerly known as Bethel Towers — have often complained about the nearby Sultana Hookah Lounge.
The seniors have alleged that Sultana patrons are drinking in the parking lot, among other issues, McCarthy said.
"These poor folks are just trying to live their lives and we have all these issues," he said, calling the hookah-related problems "a hornets nest since day one."
The commission's moratorium recommendation next faces a City Council vote, possibly at its Nov. 5 meeting. Should the council approve a moratorium, it could be imposed for as long as two years.
City officials said they may also study the effects of cigar and e-vapor establishments.