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A 'no' -- for now -- to no smoking in Cottage Grove parks

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As the huddled masses taking drags from cigarettes outside Minnesota bars and restaurants in the dead of winter can attest, the list of places smokers can light up within the law isn't getting any longer.

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But, in Cottage Grove -- for now, at least -- that list isn't getting any shorter, either.

The Cottage Grove City Council recently passed on a proposal that would have snuffed out smoking in the city's 1,000 acres of parks. At issue for some council members was the unease of telling adults they can't light up in an outdoor public space.

Council member Justin Olsen, who noted he is "not an advocate of smoking," said he had qualms with the restrictive nature of the proposed parkwide no-smoking policy.

"I absolutely agree we should encourage smoke-free parks," Olsen said. "I just think the method could be different."

Council member Derrick Lehrke echoed Olsen's concerns with a blanket no-smoking policy.

"I think the intentions are good," he said. But, he added, tobacco is a legal product -- and adults use the city's parks, too.

Smoking bans in public parks aren't uncommon. Almost 150 Minnesota cities have put no-smoking policies in place for their parks and open spaces, including dozens of metro-area cities.

In neighboring Woodbury, where it is against city ordinance to smoke in any of the city's parks, violators can be fined for lighting up. Use of any tobacco product is also prohibited within 100 feet of a Washington County-run beach or playground.

The proposal in Cottage Grove would have been more suggestion than law -- it carried no penalties for violating the no-smoking policy and would not have been a city ordinance.

Council members, however, voted unanimously to send the issue back to the city's Parks and Recreation Commission for further review. That commission recommended the council approve the tobacco-free park policy at a meeting last month.

Molly Pietruszewski, recreation coordinator for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, told officials the department proposed the measure to help alleviate concerns associated with smoking around the hundreds of kids who use Cottage Grove athletic fields and the adverse health effects of secondhand smoke. It was aimed, as well, at cutting down on the amount of cigarette butts that litter the ground at city parks, she said.

The policy was intended, she said, to "make a few folks stop and think before you smoke in front of my kids and in front of your kids."

No-smoking signs would have been paid for through the Tobacco-Free Youth Recreation program funded by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Council members suggested looking at limiting smoking restrictions to only a portion of the city's parks or placing no-smoking signs near playground equipment.

Cottage Grove already bans smoking inside city buildings.

"I understand the health effects," Mayor Myron Bailey said in an interview. "But we told [smokers] to go outside from public buildings and now we're telling them they can't smoke outside in a public place?"

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