Visitors to Inverness’ popular Depot District’s Liberty Park who want a cigarette could see their effort doused after city elected officials directed their staff this week to create some signs to discourage smoking.
The council’s move came after Inverness resident Mike Wright urged the council to encourage park visitors to keep cigarettes and their toxic smoke out of the park.
“Clearly (the park is) set up to be a family park” and the city should plant signs in the park “to discourage” people from smoking,” Wright said enthusiastically.
The enthusiasm was contagious as some of the elected council members on the dais at the Tuesday meeting responded with “amen.”
But there’s a hitch.
Florida’s Clean Indoor Air Act regulates indoor air as well as outdoor air and “expressly preempts regulation of smoking to the state and supersedes any municipal or county ordinance on the subject.”
That’s a political way of saying that only the Florida Legislature and existing state statues determine where people are banned from lighting up. And thus far, there’s no ban against smoking in public parks.
Wright told the council during its Tuesday evening public hearing he had just learned of the state restriction, but there could be a way around it.
He proposed the city post signs not banning smoking but strongly discouraging it. An example, he said, might be, “For the enjoyment and comfort of all, please do not smoke.”
Mike Wright is also a reporter for the Citrus County Chronicle.
The push to keep people from smoking at the park sends people the message “we have ideals here … and it includes not smoking,” Wright said.
Liberty Park was part of a larger city renovation and the creation of the Depot District, which also included Wallace Brooks Park. Liberty Park is a popular family destination because of its open field, children’s playground, and proximity to Big Lake Henderson.
Other communities have tried to create their own smoking bans but failed.
For several years Sarasota County banned smoking at its beaches. The ban was overturned in 2013 after a court decision found only the state could make such laws.
Wright encouraged the council to act swiftly and post the signs before summer holidays.
“If you don’t do it now, it will be too late,” he said, adding how unpleasant it is being around smoke.
“Amen,” replied some of the council members.
“I’m 100% behind Mike,” said Council president Ken Hinkle, adding that smoking was offensive.
“I’d like to see these signs out,” Hinkle told city staff.
Council David Ryan said that he smokes a pipe, but does not around children.
“(There) should be a place you can take your children where there’s no smoke,” Ryan said.
City Manager Eric Williams told the council he would look for signage that reflects the council’s wishes and that organizations such as Tobacco Free Florida might be helpful.
Williams told the council there might be some exceptions to the state law that might include playgrounds.
Councilman Cabot McBride asked Williams to investigate if there was a way to designate the entire park a playground.
A Chronicle review of the smoking statute does not exempt playgrounds. The Florida Legislature is considering bills that would give local governments more say about smoking bans. Similar efforts in the past have failed.
Wright thanked the council for its positive reaction.
“I believe most people are good and given the opportunity will do good,” he said.
He said that even if the signage gets half the smokers to not smoke at the park, that would be an accomplishment.
The Depot District’s grand opening was November 2019.
But not all were enthusiastic about Wright’s proposal and the council’s support.
Inverness resident Paul Herbert told the council it was pushing itself too far into people’s lives.
Herbert, who said he did not smoke, said “The park is outdoors. I disagree with the idea.”
“You may not like it. I may not like it,” he said. “(But) it’s not your role to tell people out doors not to smoke.”
After the council meeting, Williams told the Chronicle that he would look for signs “that do not cross certain thresholds.”
“The signage has to be such that it establishes that (the request for) no smoking is not the law,” Williams said.
In other business:
• Williams introduced to the council Whispering Pines Park’s new manager, Randal “Woody” Worley.
Worley, a retired school teacher and baseball and soccer coach, who has lived in Inverness the past 40 years, told the council it was an honor to head the park.
He said he would work to attract more people to the park with a focus on adults and adult sporting events.
• Williams said he is exploring the cost to add bathrooms to the Depot District train station building. Currently, the building is empty and the city hopes to lease out space to businesses.
• Williams also told the council the Depot District punch list was nearly complete, but the delayed boat ramp would likely be completed in March or April. Original estimates were in December, 2019 and then in January.
• Williams also told the council that next month he would bring a proposed ordinance to establish waste collection fees. Currently, the city uses money from property taxes to pay for the service.