2010-01-21 / Front Page

Smoke shop or ‘head’ shop?

New Agoura Hills store has some residents fuming
By Stephanie Bertholdo bertholdo@theacorn.com

BAD INFLUENCE?—Shop owner Usama Nassar displays cigars for sale. But the hookah and marijuana pipes in the background are also for sale, which upsets some parents. JANN HENDRY/Acorn Newspapers BAD INFLUENCE?—Shop owner Usama Nassar displays cigars for sale. But the hookah and marijuana pipes in the background are also for sale, which upsets some parents. JANN HENDRY/Acorn Newspapers The opening of a new tobacco, cigar and hookah shop on Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Agoura Hills brought numerous residents to last week’s Agoura Hills City Council meeting to register complaints.

The residents are opposed to Sam’s Tobacco, Cigar and Hookah shop at the corner of T.O. Boulevard and Lake Lindero Drive. In addition to the in-person complaints, more than two dozen e-mails were sent to the city objecting to what people feel is a “head” shop (a store that sells drug paraphernalia) in their neighborhood.

The store sells hookahs, small water pipes and so-called “bongs,” but owner Usama Nassar says that only tobacco is appropriate for smoking in the ancient devices.

A hookah is an elaborate fourpart water pipe which has been used for centuries in the Middle East and Asia to smoke tobacco. Nassar said that hookah bars and cafes are popular throughout the United States. The shop sells a range of hookahs, pipes, loose flavored tobacco and other items, including knives, aspirin, candy and lighters.

“It is a zillion dollar business in the United States,” Nassar said, adding that thousands of hookah lounges and cafes operate in California and throughout the nation.

Agoura Hills resident Lynn Rosenblum said it was a “shock” to see such a shop spring up in a family neighborhood and in proximity to Lindero Canyon Middle School.

The bigger issue, Rosenblum said, was that the shop was not in keeping with the “healthy city” philosophy that had been out in place by officials several years ago.

Rosenblum said people were willing to picket the new business to encourage the owner to close shop, but a protest scheduled for Sat., Jan. 16 was unexpectedly canceled.

Mayor Bill Koehler said the tobacco shop was a permitted use in the city and complied with current zoning laws. The business owner, he said, was not required to bring a plan before the council for approval to open his shop. Nassar met all of the city’s conditions before he opened his business.

Koehler, however, thought it would be prudent for the council to hear from members of the Agoura Hills General Plan Advisory Committee. A new city planning document is under review and could be revised, Koehler said. The committee will discuss zoning laws and specific businesses at a future City Council meeting, he said.

Jo Ann Mondrus lives three doors down from the shop and said the business is causing all kinds of “shenanigans,” including underage children hanging out in the parking lot smoking.

Regan Burns fears Agoura Hills is changing. Not only was the previous sports card shop replaced by a “bong store,” but other family-themed businesses have closed in the city, including the batting cages at Whizin’s. These are signs, he says, that the city is on a downward slide.

“(The city) is the black sheep of the Conejo Valley,” Burns said, adding that he expects the sheriff’s department to keep a close watch on the business. “We’re pretty mad,” he said.

Brenda Cohen said that she understands the current zoning laws allow for tobacco and hookah shops to operate in Agoura Hills, but she worries that children who walk by the store on their way to school may eventually be tempted to smoke. She called the business a “poison pen.”

Gregg Strumwasser asked the council to place the issue of a tobacco and hookah shop on a future agenda.

“It’s offensive to hear it called a tobacco shop,” he said.

Nasser said that he only sells tobacco and tobacco products to people who are 18 years or older and follows the letter of the law on where he can display products. Water pipes, he said, are in a separate case in the back of the shop.

“The economy is bad these days, and cigarette prices are high,” Nasser said. “I am a very responsible business owner and do not sell to minors. The money we generate and the taxes we collect help everybody in the community.”

Bruce Hamous of Westcord Commercial Real Estate Services represents property owner Darryl Thomas. Hamous said the community “may be a little misguided on this issue” and that residents should focus their attention on changing the law if they don’t like certain products being sold in legal businesses.

“The state, federal and local laws decide what is legal and not legal,” Hamous said. “Discrimination on tenants that are completely legal and abide by all the laws afforded them is a slippery slope. The landlord looked heavily at this tenant’s core business, which is cigarettes and cigars.”

Nassar said when he was first considering the space on the corner of Thousand Oaks Boulevard and Lake Lindero Drive he was concerned about the proximity of the middle school to the shop, but since two liquor stores were already located near the school, he figured that the city had already broached the subject.

“In my opinion, you can’t smoke anything but tobacco (in hookahs),” Nassar said. “I’m not here to hurt anybody. I don’t know exactly what they’re making a fuss about.”

Nasser went further and said that if anybody enters his store and even mentions the word marijuana they are kicked out.

“It’s a free country, but it’s my store, my rules,” he said.

A 25-year-old Westlake Village man, who declined to give his name while shopping at the store last week, said he supports Nassar and his smoke shop “100 percent.” He added that there are many cigar and tobacco shops in the Conejo Valley, and all of them sell hookahs and water pipes.

One of the shops is at the Agoura Meadows Shopping Center on Kanan Road in Agoura Hills.

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