Upper West Side condo votes to ban smoking

Posted: 5/15/2011

From The New York Times:

New York City's smoking ban spreads from bars and restaurants to parks and beaches Monday, and now one condominium on the Upper West Side has taken the step of prohibiting residents from smoking inside their apartments.

Even smokers who moved into the building, the Ariel West, before the ban must abide by it. The building is one of the first in the city to approve such an extensive ban. (Several rental buildings introduced bans last year, but established tenants who smoked were not affected.)

Owners in the building, a 32-story glass tower at Broadway and 99th Street, voted 47 to 3 to approve the ban late last month. There are 68 owners in total; 46 votes constituted the supermajority required to change the bylaws.

"Even though people bought into this building thinking they could smoke," said Gideon Stein, the president of the condo board at Ariel West, "people do not have a constitutional right to smoke."

That said, the three-year-old building is not about to become a police state. Enforcement will be complaint-driven, and no one will be knocking on doors or sniffing out smokers. Smoking could, however, quickly become an extremely expensive habit, since the first complaint will draw a $150 fine, and the fine for each succeeding complaint will increase by $150.

"The idea is obviously a controversial one," said Bruce Littlefield, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the building and who voted for the ban, "because people's domain is their home, and they certainly should be able to enjoy what they do within the walls of their home. But sometimes what people do seeps outside their walls and into other people's environment, and it becomes a quality-of-life issue."

Most New Yorkers have long since adjusted to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's smoking ban in the workplace and have come to expect smoke-free air, Mr. Littlefield said. Even though it was not so long ago that airplanes still had smoking sections, he added, "smokers know not to ask anymore, 'Can I smoke in your house?' That's so last decade."

Mr. Stein first floated the idea of a smoking ban two years ago. There was substantial support for it, but he did not pursue it because he knew that passing it would require a buildingwide campaign. Since then, though, several homeowners have complained about the smell of cigarette smoke seeping into their apartments, typically through air vents in bathrooms or in kitchens.

Dorothy Leeds and her husband, Arnold Weinstock, live in a five-bedroom apartment at the Ariel West, and they started noticing smoke in one bathroom and bedroom shortly after their upstairs neighbors moved in. "My husband and I are both cancer survivors," Ms. Leeds said, "so we're very conscious of our health and we're very sensitive to this."

She said that when they complained to the building's developer, the Extell Development Company, workers promptly showed up, opened up walls and then resealed the ceiling and walls to try to keep the smoke out. Extell, which still holds a majority on the condo board, also provided ionizers to purify the air in Ms. Leeds's apartment and her neighbor's. Ms. Leeds, who uses the affected bedroom as an office, says that as soon as she and her husband get a whiff of smoke, they open the window, shut the door, and turn on the exhaust fan in the en-suite bathroom.

"We'd stay away from that room, let the exhaust fan run all night and by morning the smoke would be gone," Mr. Weinstock said. "But it would get very cold in the winter and it made that room 60 percent unusable." The problem has abated with the warmer weather, he said, but they knew it would return again next winter.

"We were so thrilled that Gideon took on this cause," Ms. Leeds said. "I voted for it and I would have stuffed the ballots if I could."

Mr. Stein said that when he took a straw poll in March, 33 homeowners responded immediately that they would support a smoking ban. He spent the next six weeks pursuing the 13 votes he would need to pass a bylaw change.

None of the apartments are investor owned, and no one expressed concerns that a ban might hurt property values or make it difficult to sell an apartment. On the contrary, most people thought it might enhance values. But there were residents who thought the ban would intrude on individual liberties.

"It involved an education campaign where my wife and I spoke to people and explained to them that this is a health issue and we've got people who are affected adversely by secondhand smoke," Mr. Stein said. "And I would say to them that the ability to breathe clean air in your own apartment is a much greater and important liberty than the ability to smoke in your own apartment."

Noel Labat-Comess said he voted against the ban because he thought it was too simplistic and did not address the needs of current owners who might be smokers. "I'm not a smoker and I don't like smoking," he said, "but it is legal, and people have a right to smoke in their homes." Someone who bought an apartment at the height of the market could now be faced with having to move and sell at a loss, he added.

But Eva C. Talel, the condo board's lawyer, said: "Nobody is forced to do anything here, and if you don't like the new rule, part of what you do when you buy into a community is you buy into a set of rules that could change if a sufficient number of your neighbors want them to. The building has change built into the system."
Lisa Lippman, an apartment owner and a senior vice president of Brown Harris Stevens who has sold several apartments in the building, said she doubted the ban would drive anyone out. "Most people are already asked by their family members not to smoke in their home," she said. "Now technically they can't, and they're going to have to be more careful about it."

The fact that the Ariel West is made up mainly of family-sized apartments with three or more bedrooms, and that it has more than 100 children under 16, probably helped make the ban easier to pass. "A lot of parents were happy that their children will now know that there will be financial penalties if they smoke, and it's not just Mom and Dad telling them not to," Mr. Stein said.

Geoffrey Porges lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his wife, Jennifer, and their 6-month-old daughter, Margo. He said he had been ambivalent about a ban when Mr. Stein suggested it two years ago, because condos are supposed to avoid the kinds of restrictions more typically associated with co-ops. "We have a big dog," Mr. Porges said. "Is the next restriction going to be about big dogs, or chewing gum, or noisy teenagers, or stinky cheese?"

But this time around, perhaps because Margo had just been born, "we realized it's really nice to have a building that no matter where you are, there isn't a smell of stale tobacco," he said. "Plus with no smoking in restaurants and bars anymore, our expectation for our environment has altered, too. It's really become normal for places to have smoking restrictions."

Original here.