The board voted 4-0 with one abstention to deny granting the variance request during a rehearing for the proposed business at 225 Ocean Blvd.
“If you want this, go to the people (in a Town Meeting vote to allow the use),” said Zoning Board member Vic Lessard. “I won’t vote for it. I can’t change my mind. I love this beach too much.”
Attorney Mark Ryder, representing Ahmed Ahmed, the proposed hookah lounge’s owner, said his client will either file a motion for rehearing or proceed with getting a Town Meeting vote to allow the use.
Hookah lounges are allowed by state statute and are overseen by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. Ahmed had to go before the board for a variance because the specific use was not enumerated in the town’s zoning ordinance.
The board had previously voted 3-2 to grant the variance on April 26, but called for a rehearing after appeals were filed by the Hampton Beach Village Precinct and the owners of the Ships Inn, which is near the proposed hookah lounge. The appeals argued, in part, that such an establishment was contrary to the “family image” of Hampton Beach.
Another appeal was filed by Hampton resident Kevin Lonergan.
Attorney Eileen Nevins, representing the precinct and the Ships Inn, argued that town voters should be the ones to decide whether they want hookah lounges.
Addressing the five criteria in which variances are granted, Nevins said the proposed business is “contrary” to the public interest, noting the World Health Organization issued an advisory on hookah use stating smoking a hookah for 45 to 60 minutes is the equivalent to smoking 100 or more cigarettes.
John Nyhan, chairman of the Hampton Beach Area Commission, said the goal of the Hampton Beach Master Plan is to make the beach a family destination.
Nyhan said a hookah lounge — where patrons smoke shisha (flavored tobacco) from a hookah, a multi-stemmed instrument that can be shared among patrons — is not a part of that plan.
“If we are serious about accomplishing the master plan’s goal of restoring Hampton Beach as a family-oriented, high-quality resort, then we need to start tonight,” Nyhan said.
Ryder said the proposed business is like a night club, which is an allowed use under the town’s zoning ordinance.
“This is not much different than a night club,” Ryder said. “The only difference is smoking is allowed.”
Ryder said concerns that illegal products other than tobacco would be smoked are unfounded.
“This is highly regulated by the liquor commission,” Ryder said. “This is not a back room gin joint.”
“We are not here to break the law,” Ahmed said. “We are not serving synthetic marijuana. We are here to attract tourists.”
Lessard said he didn’t believe Ahmed proved hardship on why the Zoning Board should grant the variance.
Zoning Board member Ed St. Pierre said granting the variance would be contrary to the public’s interest.
“This isn’t NIMBY (not in my back yard),” St. Pierre said. “These are leaders of our beach community stepping forward saying they don’t want this.”
Zoning Board member Tom McGuirk agreed, noting voters shot down a warrant article in March to bring bingo to the beach.
“I don’t think the town would want this type of use if they were so conservative they didn’t want bingo at the beach,” McGuirk said.
Zoning Board Chairman Bill O’Brien abstained from the vote because he was in court Tuesday, defending the board’s right to have the rehearing.
Ryder filed suit against the Zoning Board, asking the court to allow the initial approval to stand and rule the Zoning Board’s decision to grant a rehearing “illegal, arbitrary and unreasonable.”
A Rockingham Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that the rehearing could go on, deciding the board did nothing wrong in granting it.