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Berkeley Co. Health board snuffs out clean-air proposals

September 21, 2009|By BILL KOHLER

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- In what the Berkeley County Health Department administrator called a "totally unexpected chain of events," the county's board of health Monday unanimously voted down changes to the county's clean-air ordinance.

The Berkeley County Board of Health voted 5-0 in favor of not imposing tougher restrictions on smoking in public spaces and workplaces, according to Bill Kearns, the county's health department administrator, who authored much of the proposal.

"Basically, the clean-air indoor ordinance of 2001 stands and no revision was approved," Kearns said in a telephone interview after the meeting.

Martinsburg Mayor George Karos, a member of the board, made a motion to vote in favor of not implementing the changes, Kearns said.

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Karos' motion was seconded by board member Robert Burkhart and the board voted before taking anymore comments on the issue, Kearns said.

The proposed changes have been a hot topic in Berkeley County since they were announced in August.

Roughly 130 people attended a public hearing in Hedgesville, W.Va., on Sept. 10, with many speaking out against the changes.

The most substantial change proposed was the elimination of an exemption for "free-standing" bars, which are defined under the current rules as establishments that have 50 percent or greater total sales in alcoholic beverages, health department officials said.

Also, no more than 25 percent of hotel and motel rooms rented to guests would be exempt from the new regulation, and the smoking rooms allowed would have to be "contiguous." Smoke from these rooms "must not infiltrate into areas where smoking is prohibited," according to the draft regulations.

In the current ordinance, hotel and motel rooms rented to guests are exempt, as are hotel conference rooms and other places of assembly while being used for private functions.

Local business owner C.B. "Butch" Pennington spoke at the Hedgesville hearing.

"In these hard economic times, we certainly don't need this," said Pennington, who owns three clubs and two liquor stores in the county.

Pennington predicted the elimination of the exemptions now in place in the existing clean indoor air regulations for bars and clubs would result in a loss of video lottery gaming and liquor tax revenues for the county.

Kearns said the board cited several reasons for the vote, including the economy.

Karos, who owns a drugstore in downtown Martinsburg, said the 2001 ordinance was serving the county well and he saw no compelling reason to change it.

He also said he read all the e-mail and written correspondence from the public, and talked to people in his drugstore and on the street before making his decision.

While he understands the arguments about the dangers of secondhand smoke, Karos said he felt the government shouldn't further restrict people's freedoms.

"It's freedom of choice," he said. "With the restrictions we have, it's gone very well."

"While it is definitely a concern and should be, the economy was chosen over protecting the public health," Kearns said.

Kearns said he was disappointed that the matter was dead before he was given the chance to provide an updated list of suggestions.

He said his suggestions would have allowed an established bar to be exempt from the revisions, while new bars would be required to be smoke-free.

"A lot of work went into (the proposed revisions) and we received a tremendous amount of feedback," he said. "The decision to pursue this was 100 percent brought on by the community."

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