Hookah lounge gets P&Z okay

After several years of fighting to open a hookah lounge in Milford, Sammer Karout finally got Planning and Zoning Board permission last week to get his new business going.

His attorney, Thomas Lynch, said the board unanimously approved his special permit, with some minor stipulations, and that Karout should be ready to open within a month.

Though culturally rooted in North Africa, the Middle East and areas of Southeast Asia, hookah lounges have been growing in popularity in the United States since the early 1990s, according to the World Health Organization.

Hookahs are decorative water pipes. Servers prepare shisha, which are blends of tobacco, fruits and other flavors, on top of the hookah and cover it with a sheet of foil. Patrons then smoke it in a social setting.

Connecticut hookah bars may be found in Bridgeport, New Haven, West Haven, and Fairfield.

Karout, who has owned the Olive Tree Deli on Bridgeport Avenue since 2008, briefly operated the Olive Tree Hookah Lounge on Bridgeport Avenue before it was shut down. The city’s health department shut it down, citing the fact that smoking was taking place inside the business. The state health department later amended the shutdown order — twice — thus allowing him to open, and that left Karout petitioning the Planning & Zoning Board for a special exception to re-open.

At one point it looked as if Karout had gotten P&Z approval to open his doors again, but it turned out he lost his bid because of a technicality in the board’s voting process. While members voted 6-2 in favor of allowing him to open, because Karout was applying for a special exception he needed to be approved by two-thirds of the board. Since two board members were absent that night, he didn’t get two-thirds.

His landlord, Sue Jaser, called it “prejudice,” suggesting that her and Karout’s Middle Eastern descent was the reason for the ultimate denial.

The small business was steeped in controversy, from parking spaces to health issues.

Milford Health Director Andrew Dennis McBride adamantly opposed the lounge, saying that smoking a hookah is just as dangerous as smoking cigarettes, if not more so. He and other health officials here lobbied against the hookah lounge re-opening.

As all this was taking place in Milford, a group of legislators was working to stop the proliferation of hookah lounges in the state with a bill to ban Connecticut hookah lounges altogether. Lynch said the bill was not approved, however.

Karout has said he plans to use tobacco-free hookah products and disposable tips so the smoking experience is as safe as it can be.

Karout had to take care of several matters before getting P&Z approval to open his shop. He redesigned the interior a bit, and got a lease with the state to use a row of parking spaces that are closest to the road in the shopping plaza.

“I give this new Planning and Zoning Board a lot of credit,” Lynch said. “They are more receptive to a well-thought-out business plan.”