The Merced City Council cleared the way this week for a hookah lounge to open in the city's downtown entertainment district.
The city Planning Commission had declined to give its blessing to a conditional-use permit for the project. Because of the Planning Commission's decision, or indecision, the council was forced to step in. The project developers, Encina Investment, had to appeal to the council to get the approval it needed to move forward.
Fortunately, the council correctly analyzed the situation and granted the conditional-use permit.
The project had been incorrectly sidetracked by the Planning Commission amid debates about the health effects of smoking hookahs. But as city staff properly pointed out, the potential negative health effects of a legal activity should not be weighed when considering a conditional-use permit.
After all, there are plenty of restaurants and bars serving alcohol downtown and even a cigar shop. Is the Planning Commission really going to hesitate to approve such businesses in the future because a few members are hung up about drinking and smoking?
Those businesses have to meet all the city's strict health and safety codes. They also have to abide by city, county and state regulations that relate to their businesses -- the same ones many people say are so overburdening that they are driving businesses away.
If there's a problem with the hookah lounge because it's violating those rules, it will be subject to penalties and could even be shut down -- like any business.
Supposedly there was opposition from downtown businesses to the project, but that never materialized -- at least publicly. And one business owner pointed out that while she might not like the hookah lounge, she worried that if it were rejected for health reasons someone could complain about her operation because of the negative health effects of, say, sugar.
None of this is meant as an endorsement of smoking. Clearly it is a major health risk. But it isn't illegal and it isn't something the Planning Commission should base its decision on when it comes to a conditional-use permit, any more than it should consider obesity when reviewing restaurant applications.
Forcing the council to handle it was merely passing the buck and avoidance of making what, for some Planning Commissioners, was a tough decision. But making those decisions is what they are supposed to do -- especially those with aspirations of holding higher political office.
The council is busy trying to come up with a strategy to bolster economic development and sell Merced as a business-friendly place. The Planning Commission's mishandling of the hookah lounge falls short of that goal.