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Exemption sought for historic tobacco shop that's running afoul of B.C. sign law

Historic downtown tobacconist runs afoul of B.C. signage laws

Restricting smoking is one thing. Revising history is something entirely different, Victoria councillors have decided.

Rather than bowing to provincial regulations that would force Old Morris Tobacconist owner Rick Arora to remove 90-year-old painted window signs advertising "quality pipes and requisites" and "house blend tobaccos and Havana cigars," the city will apply to the province for a ministerial exception to the rules.

Coun. Pam Madoff, an ardent non-smoker, said the building is unique and exempting the signs would not be setting a precedent.

"I don't think there's going to be a deluge of correspondence from other purpose-built tobacconists dating from the early 1900s asking to retain their signage," said Madoff.

The window signs, which date back to at least 1916, violate the Tobacco Control Act.

The Vancouver Island Health Authority has repeatedly written Arora, telling him they have to be removed or covered up. But the city has refused to issue a heritage alteration permit to remove them.

The shop at 1116 Government St. was built as a cigar store in 1892, and is the oldest continually operating tobacconist in the same location in North America, says Arora, who adds he's invested thousands of dollars to maintain the historic interior.

The shop is considered by city senior heritage planner Steve Barber as a rare surviving example of an early 20th century retail store interior. It was lavishly built in the style of a "gentleman's club," using materials such as marble, onyx and mahogany.

Provincial legislation that took effect last year prohibits the display of tobacco products in stores accessible to people under 19. Penalties start at $575 and increase to $5,000 for repeat offences. While Arora has moved all tobacco products from his storefront windows and now refuses entry to anyone under 19, the signs still run afoul of the provincial regulations.

Dianne Stevenson, VIHA's regional manager of tobacco control, told councillors the act provides for no exceptions, so the health authority has no option but to enforce the regulations.

"There are no provisions for exemption and no provisions for special dispensation," she said.

But the city fine for altering a heritage building without a permit is $1 million.

City staff and VIHA thought they had worked out a compromise to leave the signs in place but cover them up.

Arora said that would not only be difficult, it makes no sense.

He said he has taken steps to change the name on his business licence to incorporate "Cuban Cigars, London Pipes and Tobacco Company" in an effort to keep the current signage.

"There's got to be a grandfather clause. There's got to be something," said Arora. "This whole thing doesn't make sense to us."

bcleverley@tc.canwest.com

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