PENDER COUNTY — After attending a ball game in a Pender County park recently, commissioner Jerry Groves was welcomed with a plume a smoke from a nearby attendee.
“My chair was 3 feet from the fence,” he told his fellow commissioners during Monday’s meeting. “And here’s a lady blowing smoke in my face with an e-cigarette. It’s like that every game I go to.”
He suggested staff take a look at the smoking regulations allowed in its seven parks. They met with the public health director and the county parks board before putting forth to commissioners consideration of a ban.
Currently, an ordinance allows smoking, vaping, e-cigarettes and tobacco use in the parking lots at county parks. The parks director and a staff designee can also determine whether it should be banned completely on any day if it poses a risk of fire due to dry weather conditions.
The ordinance rewrite would strike the latter and eliminate e-cigarettes, which are now considered a part of the definition of vaping.
The amendment was presented by county staff attorney Patrick Buffkin for discussion and feedback, to be voted on at a later date.
“That is in an effort to give public a more robust notice of these changes and an opportunity to speak — and we didn’t have any signups on the agenda today,” chair Jackie Newton clarified. “So, apparently, it didn’t pique anyone’s interest of the initial view.”
Smoking is already banned indoors statewide, but a county can regulate smoking outdoors in public places under a General Assembly law passed in 2009. It has the authority to dictate vaping and other tobacco use under police authority as well, Buffkin added.
“There’s a trend toward regulating smoking and tobacco use of vaping among North Carolina local governments,” he told commissioners, citing nearby jurisdictions in New Hanover County, the City of Wilmington and Town of Leland, among others, that have enacted regulations.
New Hanover doesn’t allow smoking or vaping on any county, town or city properties, including parks, or in public shared places, such as bus stops, childcare facilities, polling places, galleries, libraries and museums, among others.
In Pender County, a smoking ban has been brought up a handful of times in the last decade, yet never passed muster. Though not allowed at public schools and within 50 feet of the health and human services department building, there are designated areas for employees to smoke at county-owned buildings, according to its personnel policies. It also outlines smoking is prohibited in vehicles owned by the local government.
A smoking ban in the parks had most commissioners leery of its enforcement. The approach is complaint-driven with voluntary compliance of the ordinance.
“In the last 15 or 20 years, people have really changed the way they think and feel about smoking,” Buffkin said, “and that’s why we feel like voluntary compliance is the best first option.”
Yet, he suggested when a situation arises that bucks the trend, staff would revisit and decide the appropriate level of violation to involve local law enforcement. Buffkin told commissioners “park staff is comfortable” overseeing the responsibility.
Commissioner Brad George, who worked at a Pender County park part-time, was concerned about making employees carry that weight.
“I’ve been cussed out multiple times at the park — because of dogs, because of golf carts, because of mini bikes,” he said. “It puts the person there working that has no enforcement authority in a bad spot and could jeopardize their safety.”
Newton agreed and asked if, typically, a law enforcement officer is on the grounds with the authority to oversee the ordinance violations.
“It seems to be a little bit soft on what we are going to do, if someone blatantly disregards and continues to smoke or vape,” she said.
“Ultimately, at some point, law enforcement could be involved,” Buffkin responded, noting the most severe cases of disobedience could yield a $500 criminal penalty. “County staff could take legal action to enforce the ordinance.”
He added there could be penalties for repeat violations, whether in a single day or over multiple days.
Overburdening the Pender County Sheriff’s Office over smoking complaints was problematic, commissioner Fred McCoy weighed in.
Ordinances in place now, such as prohibiting golf carts and dogs, aren’t enforced regularly, George added. He questioned the viability of administering another ordinance and used the example of a recent run-in he experienced with minors who got into a golf cart incident that left the county footing the bill for damages. He said they also were littering by shooting graffiti canons, another ordinance violation.
“I had no authority to ask who they are, what their address is, who their parents are until law enforcement got there, and luckily the kids were still there because they couldn’t ride the golf cart away because the tire was wrapped around the fence post,” he said. “And with the motor bikes, I can’t stop them and tell them that they can’t be here. By the time I say ‘who are you,’ they crank up and are speeding away. I just don’t see the teeth in this without some kind of way to enforce.”
Even with the current ordinance allowing vaping and smoking in the parking lots, George noted there will always be people who don’t follow it. The same can be said for a complete ban.
“If we’re going to take away all the rules because we can’t enforce it, we might as well do away with the speed limit — we can’t enforce the speed limit everywhere,” Groves countered.
Education, most board members agreed, would be the better route. Signs are placed in the park indicating smoking is allowed only in parking lots. However, during Groves’ visit, he said the one nearby was lying on the ground — “after being pulled down.”
“I’m trying to enhance parks, trying to make them better,” Groves said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”
Wendy Fletcher-Hardee suggested going one step further and perhaps reading aloud the rules to fans before a ball game
“Simply just mention, as a way of information, be courteous to your neighbor next to you,” she said.
Newton reminded the board the parks and staff are supported by Pender County residents’ tax dollars.
“If they choose to smoke to the detriment of their health, and possibly others around them, I think that we as a county ought to make a reasonable accommodation to them,” she said.
The board suggested staff look into increasing signage and better communicating the regulations rather than a complete ban. Buffkin will return with feedback at a later date.
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