Planning panel opposes effort to legalize French Quarter cigar bar _lowres

A participant in the competition for the longest ash is dizzied by the smoke of his cigar during the XVI Cuba Cigar festival, in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Cigar enthusiasts from around the world come to Cuba during the annual Cigar Festival to visit tobacco farms and factories and savor new cigar brands. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The City Planning Commission voted Tuesday to reject a proposal from the City Council to amend the city’s zoning ordinance to include a definition for cigar bars and make them a conditional use in French Quarter commercial districts.

The vote was 8-1. The commission’s position, if upheld, would effectively block the path for La Habana Hemingway at 533 Toulouse St. to become a licensed cigar bar.

However, the City Council will have final say on the matter. The bar is in Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey’s district.

Ramsey sponsored the motion asking the commission to study the idea of legalizing cigar bars, but she said she has not taken a position on the issue.

The proposal before the Planning Commission was to define cigar bars as bars that generate at least 10 percent of their income from the sale of cigars and related products and to permit such establishments to operate in the French Quarter despite an existing ban on new cocktail lounges there.

In a report opposing the changes, the commission’s staff said it would be “preferential treatment” to pass a law that would benefit only one business.

La Habana Hemingway was licensed as a restaurant when it opened in 2013. The business, however, has become one that primarily sells cigars and alcohol. It is operating with a temporary alcohol license from the state, but that would be revoked unless it receives a permit from the city, which has a ban on new bars in the French Quarter zoning district that includes the store.

The city’s new ban on smoking in bars includes an exemption for cigar bars, and the City Council voted last week to amend the definition of cigar bar to include businesses that were in the process of getting licensed when the law was passed. That change, which has not yet been signed into law by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, would affect only La Habana Hemingway.

Despite the limited impact of the matter before them, Christopher Kane, an attorney for La Habana Hemingway’s owners, urged the commission to consider the merits of the request to define cigar bars regardless of its benefit to La Habana.

Kane said creating a definition for cigar bar would be “good policy” in much the same way that the city found it useful to define brew pub and wine bar.

But critics of the request said allowing new cigar bars to operate in the French Quarter would have the effect of breaking the prohibition on new bars.

Changing the rule to accommodate La Habana would let that one bar exist where others cannot, said Susan Guillot of the organization French Quarter Citizens. She said she also feared that bars would keep a couple of cigars on hand and call themselves cigar bars as a way to skirt the city’s new smoking ban.

“What this really is is an attempt to legalize a bar that is operating illegally,” said Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.

Despite the 8-1 vote, with Craig Mitchell opposed, several members said they believed there is a need to create a definition for cigar bar, but they objected to the definition included by the City Council in the smoking ban, which would allow such a business to get 90 percent of its revenue from alcohol sales.