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Smoking policy for park, Houlton civic center under review

HOULTON, Maine — Town officials are considering changes in the community’s public smoking ban to possibly allow tobacco use in designated areas under specific situations.

The proposed changes arose after some discussion about the difficulty in enforcing existing ordinances and the interest of some groups to provide designated smoking areas when sponsoring events.

A public hearing will be held on June 25 to decide if town councilors will amend two ordinances, one regarding the Millar Civic Center and the other Community Park.

Smoking currently is not allowed in area parks or public buildings. The civic center sits on the edge of Community Park and there are signs up in the area telling citizens that they can’t smoke or use other tobacco products.

If the proposed amendment passes, the Town Council could temporarily authorize people or groups who lease the civic center to use an outside designated area for the use of tobacco products that complies with state law, which also prohibits smoking in public places. Lessees would be responsible for clean-up of the designated area. The councilors also could amend an ordinance to allow the Council to temporarily suspend the smoking prohibition for specific areas as designated by a resolution.

Councilors indicated during their June 11 meeting that officials have had difficulty in the past enforcing the tobacco ban in the park. The upcoming Houlton Agricultural Fair in the park prompted councilors to take up the issue.

Town Manager William MacDonald said he recently spoke with members of the Houlton Agricultural Fair Committee about tobacco use in the park.

“We had an exchange with the fair committee about educating people about smoking in the park,” he said. “We want to promote health, and we want good healthy practices for our kids. The fair committee offered to place additional educational material out during the fair to remind people that smoking is prohibited. We are working with the recreation department and the police department about enforcing the policy. The civic center is a different story, because it is separate from the park.”

MacDonald said that if the amendment passes, groups or citizens renting the building could consider establishing an area where smoking could take place and be monitored. They would have to specify that on the lease application and clean up the smoking area as well before they left. The town manager said that the amendment would only apply to the civic center and not other public buildings and that smoking would not be allowed when educational events are taking place in the building that could attract children.

Councilor Rosa McNally said that she felt that people needed to be reminded about the policy, saying that she didn’t think the policy was being enforced. She then asked how the fair committee felt about the amendment.

Both Paul Cleary, chairman of the fair board, and Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca said that they leaned toward providing a designated smoking section in the park.

“Our concern is that the fair can attract three to four thousand people at a time and we have just a small board of volunteers to keep the park secure,” Cleary said. “When you are trying to control the crowd with people who sometimes get in fights, or deal with stealing and other matters, walking around and confronting people who are smoking is not a big concern. We’ll educate people. If we decide to have a designated smoking area, we will send them there. At the same time, who will be responsible for the smoking area to make sure people are over 18-years-old and have proper identification? It is a lot of babysitting for a small cast of volunteers. We have to prioritize what is at the top of our list. I think it would be a good idea to have a smoking area, but it would be a lot to enforce.”

Houlton Police Chief Tim Deluca said that signage and voluntary compliance would do a lot to prohibit smoking in the park during the fair.

“We would talk to people verbally throughout the midway and fairground,” he said. “Most people are courteous and will comply. We may ticket someone if they are a habitual offender, but it is at the discretion of the officer.”

He added that having a designated smoking area would make it more reasonable for fairgoers and make it easier to get voluntary compliance.

Councilor Jane Torres, who is also executive director of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, said that people asked her during the recent Black Fly Brewfest if they could smoke outside. Although she said she told them they couldn’t, she believes people simply went outside and around a corner to smoke anyway.

“In my experience, people don’t stop,” she said. “You almost need someone in a uniform. The police aren’t always there. If I am leasing the spot, which I often do, I would give them an area to smoke.”

McNally said that she didn’t have a problem with a designated smoking area, as long as the wind didn’t blow smoke in the direction of others.

The fair begins June 30 and runs through July 4.

The public hearing on the proposed ordinance changes will begin at 6 p.m. Monday.

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