Upper Darby officials introduce plans to restrict excessive smoke shops

Township officials want to change zoning laws to clamp down on the rise of smoke shops, which have become a growing nuisance to community members.

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Smoke shop corner store

Smoke shops have proliferated in Upper Darby. (Google map)

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Upper Darby officials are weighing the possibility of rewriting zoning laws to halt the proliferation of smoke shops in the township.

An estimated 22 smoke shops are operating in Upper Darby — which might not seem like a lot.

“But it feels like there’s a lot,” Zoning Officer Joshua Chast said at a Wednesday night council meeting presentation. “You look around and you feel like there’s a lot of smoke shops and that’s because most of these places are just convenience stores that over time begin to operate as smoke shops.”

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Chast, manager of all things planning and zoning in the township, believes upwards of 70 convenience stores are effectively running as smoke shops. Many opened under the agreed-upon conditions as a convenience store but slowly — or abruptly changed their model.

His department is recommending Upper Darby amend Ordinance 3106, which township council passed in 2021, to clamp down on the growth of tobacco-oriented businesses.

“We want to fix how we define the smoke shop — how we improve and change the measurement for determining that smoke shop moving away from that percentage,” Chast said. “We want to relocate where you can have a smoke shop, so changing the zoning districts where it’s permitted by special exception. We want to update those special exception requirements and we want to be stricter.”

The township currently defines a smoke shop as a business where tobacco products make up 20% of its total merchandise. The new recommendation would change the measurement to 15% of the square footage of retail space.

“This is going to help us determine who’s actually a convenience store and who is actually a smoke shop,” Chast said.

Businesses that surpass the benchmark would have to seek a special exception. Among other recommendations, officials also seek to prohibit smoke shops from operating within 500 feet of any school.

The rise of smoke shops is not unique to Upper Darby. Philadelphia moved in a similar fashion in 2021 to address a wave of convenience stores shifting gears to selling drug paraphernalia.

Citing a rise in community complaints as well as an uptick in assaults, thefts and tobacco sales to minors, township officials painted a picture of how these businesses have become a nuisance.

“The bottom line is quality of life is an important initiative in every way,” Mayor Ed Brown said on Wednesday night. “This is just one piece of it. So we want to improve the quality of life of Upper Darby residents and the community in every way and this is a good first step of many things to come.”

The recommendations were well-received by township council members across the political spectrum.

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Before the amended ordinance can be adopted, township officials and the public will again scrutinize it.

Then, it will go before the county planning commission and eventually return to the township council for a vote. The process will likely take a couple of months.

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