NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The New Orleans City Council approved a motion Thursday directing the City Planning Commission to hold a public hearing to come up with a new definition of what constitutes a cigar bar, and to amend the zoning in the area of La Habana Hemingway Cigar Bar to allow a tobacco business as a conditional use.
It is a move Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey said will help the business that she says is the victim of a permitting process quagmire.
"It has gone on for a long time, it's a commitment I made to that business that I would work with them to make sure that they were compliant," Ramsey said.
Ramsey's goal is to allow La Habana to operate legally as a cigar bar.
But there are opponents.
"I'm still so confounded and confused as to why an illegal operator would be given such latitude from our council people," said Carol Gniady, executive director of the group French Quarter Citizens.
And there was opposition from the council dais.
"It will allow one bar that is illegally operating now to be a cigar bar, this goes against the brand newly passed smoke free ordinance for New Orleans which grand-fathered in existing cigar bars," said Councilwoman Susan Guidry.
When the bar opened in 2011, it was licensed by the state as a restaurant and allowed to serve alcohol. Of course, in Louisiana smoking is prohibited in restaurants.
An attorney for the business told the council that it still serves sandwiches, but the majority of its business comes from cigar sales and thus the business needs official designation as a cigar bar.
"So that we can then apply for what he's doing there, nobody complains about what he's doing, it is to allow him to do that in a lawful way," said attorney Chris Kane.
The owner, Sergio Cabrera was at the council meeting but refused to be interviewed for this story.
Guidry said Cabrera has operated illegally for years and should not be rewarded for his actions.
"This is one of those nightmares that neighborhood people constantly talk about when a new business is coming in and wants to operate as a standard restaurant, the fear being that it will morph into a bar," she said.
Cabrera's attorney admits the business remains out of compliance when it comes to the sign outside describing it as a cigar bar.
In the end, the council voted 6 to 1 to have the City Planning Commission hold a public hearing on redefining the definition of cigar bars.
Ramsey said her desire to amend the zoning in the area of La Habana Hemingway should not be seen as affront to the new smoking ban she voted for, or as an opening for an increase in the number bars citywide.
"It is not in any way meant to be a slap in the face…I don't want to open it up in VCC2 to bars, I don't want to open it up citywide to creating new bars, and cigar bars," said Ramsey.