Smoke houses push the fine line

The Westby City Council passed all its beer, liquor, wine, jukebox and cigarette licenses in June, but not without discussion as local law enforcement looks to the council for guidance as they deal with smoking and alcohol issues in the city limits.

Smoking  issues in the city limits

Smoking issues in the city limits

In the state of Wisconsin the no smoking ban in public buildings law went into effect on July 5, 2010, and since that time many people have kicked the habit, while businesses have diversified to accommodate their smoker cliental and yet remain in compliance with state and municipal laws.

In doing so, many bars and restaurants in the area have constructed smoke houses, either attached to or a short distance from the main establishment, where smokers can go to have a cigarette and escape inclement weather at the same time.

Smoke houses have become a point of controversy for local governments as they struggle to allow businesses in their communities the right to thrive, yet struggle to stay compliant with already established municipal ordinances in regards to smoking and alcohol consumption laws.

Mayor Dan Jefson said the entire smoke house issue is new territory for everyone and it will be a learning curve for years to come. The council will need to look carefully at its ordinances and deal with each case individually.

The Westby Rod and Gun Club at 215 South Main Street in downtown Westby recently completed construction on its smoke house located right next door to the business. The enclosed smoking area was constructed on property already owned by the Rod and Gun, after they removed an existing building last fall to construct the new smoke house.

The smoke house has four walls and a roof, but the upper half of the building is screened in without windows keeping it in compliance with the city ordinance. The two buildings are not attached structurally, but can be accessed by a connecting sidewalk on the back side and in-between the buildings. If the buildings were structurally attached the Rod and Gun would have had to meet state approved building plans, including making the bathrooms handicap accessible.

Westby Police Chief Mitch Hundt approached the council for direction on how his department should handle issues of alcohol being carried from the bar into the smoke house, which according to city ordinance is legal if a patron does not use the public sidewalk to gain entry. The smoke house does not have a licensed bartender, although activities in the smoke house are monitored by a video camera set up in the smoke house and transmitted to a television screen in the bar.

Hundt said it is tough for one bartender to monitor activities in two buildings and his department has been called to the smoke house, which has become a congregation point for people who are given last call to leave the bar and end up in the smoke house instead of leaving the premises.

“It’s tough enough to throw people out once, let alone to throw them out a again from a second building,” Hundt said.

Councilman Dan Helgerson said the Rod and Gun is working within city ordinances and if they go astray they will need to pay the piper just like any other establishment. He said prior to now when a business applied for its alcohol beverage renewal license the city has never required a property description of where alcoholic beverages will be sold and stored on the premises .

Jefson said that according to Westby City Attorney David Abt the city has been wrong in the past for not requesting a visual description, a process they are working to correct.

The Rod and Gun’s property description had to be altered before it was approved by the city council in June. The original description included public sidewalks on Main and Second streets and if the council had approved the application as drawn transporting open alcohol beverages from the main Rod and Gun building to the smoke house next door on those sidewalks would have been legal. That is no longer the case, although it is still legal to have alcohol on the sidewalk between the two back doors of the buildings.

A city ordinance point system is used to monitor the status of any and all businesses that sells alcoholic beverages. If a business earns 200 points in conviction violations in any given year they will lose their license. The police department will be monitoring all situations carefully and any citations that result in convictions will work against the businesses involved.

Hundt said his department has already had to deal with fights, smoking and marijuana issues in the smoke house since it opened and based on the city point system for holding a liquor license. Alderman Brad Mashak said the Rod and Gun is sticking its whole license out there if they continue to have issues with the smoke house and citations turn into convictions.

Point value is based on the violation:

— Sale of alcohol without license or permit; sale of controlled substance on licensed premises, 100 points;
— Sale of alcohol beverages to underage person, 50 points;
— Sale of alcohol to an intoxicated person, 50 points;
— Underage person on premises, 50 points;
— Intoxicated bartender; disorderly conduct on premises, 50 points;
— After hours consumption, 50 points;
— Refusal to allow police to search premises or refusal to cooperate with lawful police investigation, 50 points;
— License, agent or operator not on premises at all times, 25 points;
— Persons on premises after closing hours, 25 points;
— Violation of carry-out hours, 25 points;
— Leaving premises with an open alcoholic beverage, 25 points.

Mayor Jefson said it doesn’t take too many hits for a business to lose its license and without someone monitoring the situation in the smoke house that could very likely be the case at the Rod and Gun.

“A bartender can’t see between two walls so without changes this can quickly become a big deal,”

Jefson said.

Helgerson said the bar has to be responsible for its own destiny. The Rod and Gun smoke house set up is not the perfect situation, but he does not believe it has added to the problem. He said the neighbors have not complained, the building is not an eyesore and there’s nothing wrong with a business trying to expand and accommodate its customers.

The council approved all licenses with Lund providing the only nay vote and Councilman Ron Janzen was absent.

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