by Meredith Bernstein
Despite widespread opposition from both township officials and residents, the prospective owners of a Lafayette Hill vape shop are going to court in an attempt to overturn a Whitemarsh Township decision to deny them a conditional use permit they needed to open.
David Wijaya and his wife Angela applied for zoning to open up Lafayette Tobacco Outlet, Inc. on 551 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill, in April this year. But after hearings in May and June in which numerous residents voiced their opposition, the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors voted to deny the couple’s application for a conditional use permit they needed to open.
The Wijayas’ attorney, Catherine M. (“Kate”) Harper, filed an appeal with the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas on June 28 and awaits a schedule for briefings and oral arguments. She said the Township didn’t follow the law in declining her clients’ conditional use permit.
“The grounds for appeal are that the zoning ordinance makes any retail shop in an existing shopping center a lawful land use in that location unless there is competent evidence that this particular shop is unusually dangerous to the public health, safety and welfare,” Harper told the Local. “There was no such evidence offered.”
Harper remains confident that the court will approve Wijaya’s vape and tobacco business because, she said, the Wijayas met the requirements of the zoning ordinance for approval.
“I think our chances [in court] are good,” she said. “The township zoning ordinance makes no distinction between shops that sell tobacco or vaping products and shops that sell any other product, and in making a zoning decision, especially where the applicant offered that no smoking would be permitted on the premises, one shop is the same as the other. There are no legal grounds in the zoning ordinance to find otherwise.”
The Wijayas, Harper said, were simply entrepreneurs with a good business idea. David Wijaya has six years of experience in the cigar and cigarette industry and April Wijaya recently obtained an accounting degree from Temple University. The couple’s shop would sell cigarettes, E-cigarettes (vapes), essential oil and CBD oil, rolling paper tobaccos and various other tobacco products.
When word of their business plan reached the community, however, opposition to the plan was strong.
In a June hearing of the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors, dozens of residents spoke out against the proposed vape shop.
“I work in the Philadelphia public schools,” teacher Barbara Chandler Allen said. “I work with 177,000 children. We spend every waking hour trying to prohibit those children from becoming addicts to anything – anything that will take them off the track to a decent human life. There is no reason in God’s green earth why any shop like that should be here. Does this make any sense for our children? Why would we want to put this in the midst of our community? It’s nasty. Are we losing our minds? This needs to be voted down.”
“I probably am going to say that 90% of the kids here are vaping,” local parent Jen Fayocavitz said. “Sorry to tell you, your kids are probably doing it, too. They’re doing it on the bus. They’re doing it in the bathrooms at school. They’re doing it in Koontz park. They’re doing it Miles Park. The most embarrassing thing in our P .W . yearbook is that 50% of the kids tried to vape in school.”
“I haven’t heard one person come into one of these meetings and want this,” local resident Joe Nugent said. “It’s our neighborhood. We live here. They don’t live here.”
The strong opposition was enough to convince the Board of Supervisors to deny the Wijayas zoning permit.
Asked about the strong opposition, Harper, the Wijaya’s attorney, said her clients still feel there is a market for their shop in Lafayette Hill.
“[The Wijayas] were very surprised by the opposition,” Harper said. “Remember, at least one neighbor spoke in favor of their application and said he was an adult and a smoker, so there is some demand for their business.”
Harper said she understood residents concerns, but reiterated that what the Wijayas wanted to sell were legal, licensed products in the state.
“My clients are not going to sell anything that is not legal to sell,” Harper said. “They have a license from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to sell tobacco products. They’re purchasing the software that would make sure that they don’t make a mistake and sell to a minor. They don’t want to sell to a minor. The penalties are severe and stiff. They certainly don’t want to sell anything illegal.”
But some of the Wijayas’ neighbors are also concerned about the prospect of a vape and tobacco shop next door.
Sherri Leon, owner of Whitemarsh Pharmacy, which is next door to Mr. Wijaya’s proposed shop shop, recalled how her pharmacy was robbed at gunpoint in May. She said she was uncomfortable with the clientele the shop would bring to the shopping center.
“The fact that we were robbed at gunpoint in May only confirms that our [pharmacy] would not benefit from the walk-in traffic that they would potentially get,” Leon said. “There was never a time when any of us were for a vape shop.”
Harper made clear that Lafayette Tobacco Outlet, Inc. would adhere to the same standards as the other shopkeepers in the “Shopper’s World” Shopping Center and even offered conditions on the tobacco and vape shop.
“We’re offering as a condition that we have hours that are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m,” Harper said. “We’re offering as a condition that we don’t allow smoking in the store.”“I don’t believe that there’s any danger to the public health, safety, and welfare from a retail store that sells products,” attorney Harper said. “I’m hoping that this young entrepreneur family gets the ability to open a business here in the township.”