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Waynesville rolls out compromise in ongoing food truck debate

fr foodtrucksNew rules for where and how food trucks can set up shop in Waynesville attempt to balance the popular and growing food truck movement with the signature small-town character and established economy already here.

The new food truck rules are laxer and more flexible, making it easier for food trucks to join the party. But the new rules stop short of a food truck free-for-all.

“Mobile food vendors, whether in the form of a food truck, trailer or cart, should enhance the local business economy and be suitable to its surroundings, and should not detract or create a negative impact,” explained Elizabeth Teague, Waynesville’s development services director who guided the planning board in crafting new rules.

The new food truck rules have been massaged and debated over the past four months and are now headed for a public hearing before the Waynesville town board of aldermen next Tuesday evening (6:30 p.m. on May 24 at town hall.)

Until now, food trucks weren’t mentioned by name in the town’s ordinances. But their rise in popularity as a cheaper, on-the-go alternative to sit-down restaurants and hipper, more fashionable alternative to fast food was finally being seen in Waynesville.

To date, food trucks have been shoehorned into the town’s existing ordinance for temporary uses and special events, like yard sales and carnivals. 

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With food trucks starting to show up around town, the planning board set out to tailor a set of rules specifically for food trucks — from ensuring they have their health inspections to keeping them off public sidewalks without permission.

The biggest question in the food truck debate has been how long a food truck should be allowed to set up in one spot. Early in the discussion, the planning board tossed out the idea of letting food trucks set up shop as permanent fixtures anywhere they wanted within commercial districts.

The planning board later pulled back from that stance, and arrived at a 180-day limit in any one spot in a calendar year.

The 180-day limit doesn’t have to be consecutive days, however. A food truck could spread out its 180 days in whatever sort of schedule it wants to over the course of the year, as long as the total days operating in one spot don’t exceed 180.

“That will give them a lot of flexibility to work with,” Teague said.

Food truck operations avoid the start-up investment and overhead that comes with a bonafide restaurant, and don’t have to follow the same regulations.

If a food truck parks in one spot permanently, is it really a food truck? Or is it simply masquerading as one to avoid the costs and regulations that go with brick-and-mortar restaurants?

That’s the question planning board members wrestled with.

“Mobile food units should not be used as ‘work-arounds’ to avoid building, safety and zoning regulations,” Teague said.

This stance poses a conundrum for Mad Anthony’s Bottle Shop & Beer Garden, a taproom on the outskirts of downtown that recently set up a food truck out back as an alternative to an in-house restaurant. Mad Anthony’s wants its food truck to be a permanent fixture on its property.

Food trucks by definition are mobile and not temporary. Mad Anthony’s food truck is even tied into the building with a water line and electrical connections.

“If you permanently park it somewhere and permanently connect it to your building, when does it come under the building codes?” Teague posed. “If they want to be there on a permanent basis we have to figure out how to handle that under the building code. While you can change a zoning ordinance locally, you cannot change the state building code.”

Aside from the logistical issue of how to classify a permanent kitchen masquerading as a food truck when it comes to building codes, the Mad Anthony’s situation presents a philosophical conundrum as well.

While Mad Anthony’s shiny, new, classy-looking food truck parked behind its building is not an aesthetic eyesore, any loophole created for Mad Anthony’s could be seized on by other food truck operators elsewhere in town. That would open the door for makeshift restaurants serving food out of truck windows to become permanent fixtures of any parking lot in town.

“There are people who believe Waynesville has worked very hard to create a town with a quaint, historical character and they don’t think that a modular mobile structure being used as a permanent building is part of that,” Teague said. “The other side of that is that a rising tide lifts all boats, and the more activity you have, you draw more people in, and everyone benefits from that.”

Still, Teague and the planning board recognized that Mad Anthony’s on-site food truck is a positive addition not only for beer garden patrons, but for Waynesville’s nightlife scene.

So Teague set out to craft a loophole as narrowly as she could to allow for Mad Anthony’s unique situation, without opening the barn door so wide the town would regret it later.

She came up with a commissary loophole. Food trucks are required under public health rules to have a designated commissary where they stock their food trucks from, whether it’s storing refrigerated perishables overnight or prepping ingredients.

Teague proposed a loophole that would allow a food truck to setup one location on a permanent basis, as long as it was located on the same property as its commissary.

This would keep a food truck from setting up shop permanently in a random parking lot, but allow for cases like Mad Anthony’s where there’s an existing establishment the food truck is essentially part of. The proposed loophole would require food trucks to be parked behind or to the side of the building.

 

What else the rules say

Another question the planning board wrestled with was whether to allow foods trucks to set up on public streets and sidewalks, or public town parking lots.

The door is left open under the new rules to allow case-by-case permission but not as a matter of course.

Last year, a barbecue food truck occasionally set up on the street outside Frog Level Brewing — serving food on the public sidewalk and from a public parking space. It did so illegally since it lacked a permit or permission from the town to set up on public property.

“When you allow someone to park on the street, such as a public parking place or sidewalk, you are actually ceding over property in the public domain for personal gain,” Teague said. “If you are taking away a parking space, which has a value associated with it, it is reasonable to expect for some sort of compensation to the public for the use of that space.”

The new rules don’t ban food trucks from public parking areas, but do require a lease agreement with the town and likely some sort of fee, as well the blessing of the adjacent businesses.

Food trucks are not allowed on public property in the Main Street vicinity under any circumstance, however, a caveat that was included at the request of the Downtown Waynesville Association.

Another condition in the new rules is that food trucks cannot set up within 50 feet of an existing brick-and-mortar restaurant during its normal hours.

Food truck fans claim the free market should dictate food choices, not rules that protect the restaurant industry and limit the public’s choices. On the flip side, some feel food trucks have an unfair advantage — they have fewer regulations, less taxes and less overhead —  creating an unequal playing field that hurts traditional restaurants.

While food trucks add to a community’s street scene and vibrancy, the restaurant industry is critical to the economy, from providing jobs to paying property taxes.

Here are a few lesser points contained in the new food truck rules:

• Food trucks have to get a permit from the town, but the permit is free.

• Food trucks have to have a health department inspection to get a permit, a condition the county health department actually requested be built into the town’s permit process.

• Food trucks that set up in conjunction a festival or special event are exempt. If there’s a street festival on Main Street, for example, each cotton candy, frozen lemonade and polish sausage vendor doesn’t have to get a food truck permit, nor does a barbecue wagon brought in for a church summer fun day.

“Local government isn’t here to micromanage,” Teague said.

• Accommodations must be made with adjacent businesses to allow food truck workers to use the bathroom.

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