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Wednesday, 01 June 2016 14:49

Waynesville split over proposed food truck rules

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fr foodtrucksAn ongoing debate over food trucks and pushcart vendors in Waynesville made its way to the town board last week, but a vote was delayed after it became evident town board members differed on their views.

Postponing a decision will give aldermen more time to contemplate the nuances of food truck rules. It was unclear whether the proposed rules would have passed last week anyway, given divergent views among board members.

The new food truck rules are laxer and more flexible, making it easier for food trucks to make inroads in Waynesville. But the new rules stop short of a food truck free-for-all, namely by limiting how long they can stay in any one spot.

There’s an exception, however, under a clause now known as “Mad Anthony’s paragraph” in honor of a beer bottle shop that wants to make a food truck a permanent fixture on its property.

Debate over the new food truck rules has centered almost exclusively on the “Mad Anthony’s paragraph.”  In essence, it creates a loophole on the time limit a food truck can stay in one place, allowing a food truck to become a permanent fixture on a site if it’s connected to the adjoining business.

Alderman LeRoy Roberson was troubled by the Mad Anthony’s clause, fearing it could lead to the proliferation of rag-tag food truck encampments permanently parked around town.

“Question,” Roberson said early in the meeting. “This (loophole) could apply anywhere in town?”

“Yes,” Teague replied. “And that is a concern when you are trying to write legislation for a specific case. Once it is in your ordinance, you have to apply it equally across all business districts.”

Roberson said his concern isn’t the food truck at Mad Anthony’s in particular, which is classy as far as food trucks go and largely hidden from the public street view.

“If it applies just to them, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” Roberson said. “But if we pass something like this it applies to the whole town, and that’s what we have to consider.”

The owner of the Mad Anthony’s food truck disputed that notion.

 “If the fear is you are going to be overrun with food trucks, it costs too much and there is too much time invested. It is hard, hard work,” Glenna Young said.

While the overhead on a food truck is lower than a traditional restaurant, the margins are also much slimmer.

“Right now we are just struggling to keep our doors open,” Young said.

Alderman Julia Freeman came out in support of the new food truck rules, including the Mad Anthony’s paragraph. But the other two aldermen refrained from staking out their positions.

Alderman Gary Caldwell simply commended the work that went into crafting the ordinance over the past six months.

“We have a very good and very thoughtful planning board,” Caldwell said.

Alderman Jon Feichter asked a series of questions drilling down on the pros and cons of the new rules, and in particular, trying to understand the loophole that concerned Roberson, and gave town planning staff pause as well.

“In regards to the staff concerns in relation to the Mad Anthony’s clause, can you be more specific in regards to what staff concerns are?” Feichter asked.

“When something is a permanent fixture, when does it become a building structure?” Teague said.

Mad Anthony’s wants to have it both ways. Food trucks are exempt from state building codes and town design guidelines because they’re mobile. But what if they aren’t in fact mobile? Should they still be exempt? Is it mutually exclusive to act like a permanent structure, yet escape the rules that would otherwise apply by calling yourself mobile?

“That is what is causing staff some concern,” Teague said. “We have to be able to put it in a box.”

Postponing a vote will give the town board more time to weigh the issue, but the new rules couldn’t have passed anyway due to an obscure technicality pointed out by Town Attorney Woody Griffin following the discussion.

Only four of the five town board members were present at the meeting — Mayor Gavin Brown was out due to illness. To pass a new ordinance on the so-called “first reading” would take a supermajority. With the mayor out and with Roberson making his dissent known, the remaining three aldermen wouldn’t constitute the needed supermajority to pass the rules on their first reading anyway, so the issue was tabled until the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, June 14.

 

Where’s the rub?

The biggest question in the food truck debate has been how long a food truck should be allowed to set up in one spot.

The proposed ordinance would limit food trucks to no more than 180 days in one spot in a calendar year. A food truck could spread out its 180 days in whatever sort of schedule it wants over the course of the year — such as Friday and Saturday nights year round, or seven days a week for half the year — as long as the total days operating in one spot doesn’t exceed 180. 

Teague explained the rationale for limiting the duration food trucks can stay in one spot.

“To place one permanently on a site it should comply with state building codes. If not, we are essentially allowing a temporary structure that doesn’t comply with state building codes but will become a permanent structure by default,” Teague said.

This stance poses a conundrum for Mad Anthony’s Bottle Shop and Beer Garden on the outskirts of downtown, which hopes to make a food truck a permanent fixture on its site. 

David Young, the owner of Mad Anthony’s, feels the proposed ordinance is too limiting. Young questioned why Waynesville was having so much consternation with food trucks compared to other communities.

“This is not an unsolvable problem. It is not beyond Waynesville’s ability to negotiate,” Young said.

Young pointed to food trucks that have taken up permanent residence at the Lazy Hiker Brewery in downtown Franklin and Innovation Brewery in downtown Sylva. Those towns don’t appear to have an issue with food trucks, Young said, questioning why Waynesville seems hamstrung by the prospect of what-ifs.

“I am not sure how big those problems are,” Young said.

Food trucks often crop up in connection with breweries and bars, forging a symbiotic relationship with nightspots without on-site restaurants.

For Mad Anthony’s, a beer garden heavy on outdoor seating, the walk-up food truck window in the back parking lot makes a huge difference in keeping patrons.

“It is part of our kitsch. It is part of our gimmick. People like a wide-open space to drink a beer in and a food truck to grab a hot dog while they’re doing it,” Young said.

But Roberson wasn’t convinced it was kosher to grant a mobile food truck permanent status without imposing all the requirements that apply to permanent structures.

“We still get back to the state requirements of a permanent structure,” Roberson said.

“We are not a permanent structure,” Young responded.

“Not if it is sitting in one spot and not moving at all?” Roberson asked.

Young said there is no stipulation that a vehicle has to move periodically to still be considered a vehicle. As along as it passes annual vehicle inspections, it doesn’t have to be driven to count as a mobile unit, Young said.

Feichter questioned the long-term plan for Mad Anthony’s food truck. He asked Young if he envisioned the food truck as a permanent way of serving food to bar patrons, or if it was a temporary measure until he could put an on-site kitchen in.

“Do you intend to keep this as a mobile unit forever?” Feichter asked.

“If five years from now I was swimming in money, I would love to expand the building and put a full commercial kitchen in, but that is so far down the road,” Young said. “Right now I’m trying to stay afloat and hope we have a good summer.”

But Roberson’s bigger concern was the precedent the town would be setting.

“I appreciate the situation you are in,” Roberson told Young. But, “This applies to the entire town.”

Young said if a food truck set up somewhere with undesirable consequences, the town could deal with that separately and shut them down.

Roberson disagreed. If the town ordinance allows food trucks to set up indefinitely at one location, then the town couldn’t selectively ban them from one spot while allowing them in another.

“Our powers are limited,” Roberson said.

Glenna Young, who helps operate the food truck, said the town should be more open-minded.

“There has to be some room in these ordinances and codes for some creativity, some innovation. There is room there for things that look my food truck,” Glenna Young said.

Freeman came out in favor of the food truck concept as an alternative business model. Entrepreneurs, particularly those like the Youngs who renovated a historic home in the downtown district for their start-up venture, should be encouraged, she said.

“We have to be loose on some of these things to allow these older structures to be used and bring more money into our economy,” Freeman said.

Roberson kept coming back to the fear that property owners wanting to dodge the town’s design standards and building codes would exploit the food truck loophole.

“You in essence have built an addition on your building,” Roberson said. But the addition is really just a trailer, and trailers don’t pass muster with the town’s design guidelines for business districts.

“We restrict mobile homes and trailers to certain parts of town and have very distinct guidelines that apply to those,” Teague said.

Other businesses putting in new buildings have to meet design and landscaping guidelines aimed at preserving the town’s character, Teague said. Should food trucks be exempt from those, even if they are acting like a permanent structure?

“We have these design guidelines that we have asked other people to comply with,” Teague said. “You can take a modular building and fix it up and put plantings around it and it can blend quite nicely.”

Teague said she has been exploring another path that would allow Mad Anthony’s to make its food truck a permanent fixture without having to jump through the hoops of a food truck permit. Young could convert the food truck to a full-fledged structure that met the town’s appearance and design standards, as well as state building codes.

“This could happen with some creative engineering and structural enhancements,” Teague said.

 “I think would be an onerous and almost insurmountable task for us,” Young replied.

 

Finding balance

While Mad Anthony’s situation has dominated the food truck debate, it isn’t the only one prompting the need for an ordinance that clarifies what’s allowed. Until now, the town had no rules specifically addressing food trucks.

There’s a hot dog cart that sets up during lunch hour along South Main Street in Waynesville, a Mexican food truck that sets up outside a Latino bar on weekend nights in Hazelwood, and the “nut man” who sets up in a parking lot at the intersection of Russ Avenue and U.S. 19 during holiday months.

“We are trying to meet a lot of different types of mobile food vendors’ needs and we hope this creates the flexibility they need to work successfully in our town,” Teague told the town board. “At the same time we are trying to meet the requests of Mad Anthony’s to have a mobile food unit parked on a piece of property for an extended period of time.”

There’s an easy work around for Mad Anthony’s: simply move the food truck a few yards from one side of parking lot to the other half way through the year to dodge the 180-day limit at a single location.

A food truck can get permits for more than one location simultaneously, allowing it to move around town, as long as it doesn’t spend more than 180 days in a calendar year at any one spot and as long as the town has the schedule of where they’ll be when. 

Mad Anthony’s property is technically divided into two parcels, so Young could get two permits — one for each parcel — and move the food truck to the other parcel technically half-way through the year not violate the 180-day limit at a single location. Young said town staff told him this would fly.

“It is OK to violate the spirit of the ordinance as long as I don’t violate the letter?” Young asked.

The Mad Anthony’s paragraph — one that appeared to get mixed reviews from town aldermen — was also designed as an attempt to help Mad Anthony’s keep their food truck going in the same site year-round.

The loophole would let food trucks stay in one place permanently, only if that place happens to be on the same site as the commissary used to stock supplies from and do food prep in. 

Teague crafted the Mad Anthony’s paragraph as narrowly as she could — allowing permanent food trucks only when operating in conjunction with their commissary, preventing them from setting up shop on a permanent basis in random parking lots.

 

Public property downtown

Another issue that’s surfaced in the food truck debate is whether food vendors should be allowed to set up on public property — be it sidewalks, town parking lots, along the street, or public parks.

The door is left open under the new rules to allow case-by-case permission. A food vendor would have to get approval from the town and most likely pay a fee to set up on public property.

The new rules bar food trucks from public property in the downtown central business district, however. The rationale is two fold.

For starters, food carts and trucks don’t fit with the historic image of Main Street, according to the planning board.

But moreover, it wouldn’t be fair to allow a pushcart peddler to roll in and ride the coattails of downtown’s success without contributing to the special taxing district like all the other merchants do.

The Downtown Waynesville Association has formally objected to allowing food trucks on public property downtown, out of fairness to the bricks-and-mortar businesses that have long underwritten improvement projects to make downtown a desirable destination in the first place.

The ban on food carts on public property in the central downtown area doesn’t sit well with John Catton, however, who hoped to open a hot dog cart in the mini-park at the corner of Main and Depot streets, across from the historic courthouse.

“You have tables there, you have trash cans there. What is it for, just to look at?” Catton said during the discussion at the town board meeting.

But the Downtown Waynesville Association members view the park and picnic tables as amenities for all to enjoy, not to serve the private business interests of a hotdog pushcart vendor.

Catton countered that a place to grab a hot dog would be a benefit to Main Street commerce, not just himself.

“Why is it such a threat?” Catton said. “These downtown owners act like they own the downtown with their money solely. That’s not true. This is our community.”

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