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Food Fight: Anthony’s mad at Waynesville

fr foodtruckThe Mad Anthony’s food truck debate culminated last week in what will go down in the annals of Waynesville lore as “The Battle of Branner Avenue” — the story of a local businessman who did almost everything wrong but was in the right, and the town that did almost everything right but was in the wrong.

In the end, no one was happy, and everyone lost. 

 

The two Waynes

Pennsylvania-born Anthony Wayne is a revered historical figure who represents a romanticized version of the early American patriots. A surveyor and state legislator, Wayne took up arms at the outset of the Revolutionary War as a citizen-soldier and quickly earned a reputation as a loyal and fearless commander. 

Accordingly, countless counties, streets, schools, cities and businesses are named after him — including the Town of Waynesville, and Mad Anthony’s Bottle Shop & Beer Garden. 

General Wayne earned for himself the nickname “Mad Anthony” during the Battle of Stony Point, where he and 1,300 men scaled a cliff in the middle of the night and silently bayonetted a British garrison into submission. 

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Lesser commanders would never have jumped into a battle like that without making far more substantial preparations — but the course of history often pivots on those instances when otherwise reasonable people make unreasonable decisions. 

David Young is co-owner of Mad Anthony’s, which opened on Branner Avenue in Spring 2015 after he renovated a century-old farmhouse that had seen better days, transforming it into a stylish, contemporary-yet-classic taproom that added culture to the community and coin to the coffers of the town.

The bar had, in recent months, become extremely popular among a diverse clientele — young, old, straight, gay, townies, tourists, tattooed, pierced, or not. 

Some have gone so far as to call it a “cultural hub” where attorneys and Realtors mingle with musicians and artists on the shady side porch or down in the open-air grove, where industrial-grade string lighting sags lazily above tree-shaded picnic tables and dogs chase Frisbees as children look on and laugh.

There was, however, just one problem with that idyllic scene — David Young was not following the rules.

The roof throwing shade over the side porch hadn’t been permitted, nor had the lighting system. Adding to this pattern of ignorance, negligence or the desire to save a buck, a food truck showed up behind the bar in fall 2015 — also unpermitted. 

But there wasn’t a real “permit” per se for the Mad Anthony’s food truck — affectionately and cleverly named MA’s Kitchen, for its owner Glenna Young, David’s mother — because Waynesville had yet to issue definitive guidelines on a trend that had only just begun to permeate the far reaches of Western North Carolina. 

A fixture in many northern cities for decades and in larger cities across the region in recent years, food trucks have become the internet-age version of the old apple cart, serving up banh mi or baked Brie with a side order of savvy opportunism.

Waynesville got its first taste of the issue when someone wanted to open a hot dog stand near the Haywood County Historic Courthouse last winter.

Around that same time, Young approached Waynesville about his food truck, which differed significantly from the proposed hot dog stand as well as from the traditional idea of a mobile food truck pulling up to a curb in a busy business district and serving trendy young urban professionals eclectic ethnic cuisine on their lunch break. 

Young’s “food truck” isn’t really even a truck — it’s a trailer, located on private property, isn’t intended to be mobile, and has utility connections to the main building. Although Young did acquire a temporary use permit for the food truck on Feb. 5, that permit had to be renewed periodically. 

 

Opening shots fired 

Missteps caught up with Young right around that same time, perhaps due to the elevated interest in a local business that was making waves and making unusual requests. 

Town code officers notified Young that he was in violation of building codes (for the porch roof), fire codes (for the lights) and the town’s light pollution ordinance (also for the lights). The implicit threat behind the notifications was made explicit by Waynesville Development Services Director Elizabeth Teague, who said she wanted the building code violations to be dealt with before considering the renewal of Young’s temporary use permit.

Young said he was unclear on how his roof and lights violated building codes, because the town hadn’t told him. 

Those violations weren’t necessarily the result of shoddy construction; indeed, the patio roof looks overbuilt. His violations were due to the fact that he hadn’t applied for permits, which usually includes a depiction of the project. Sometimes that’s a rough sketch, and sometimes that’s a full set of certified architectural drawings. 

In this case, the town had nothing. 

Tom McGuire, Waynesville’s senior building code officer, correctly told Young that it wasn’t the city’s job to draft construction plans for citizens. This opening skirmish resulted in a stalemate of sorts, but may have put Young at a tactical disadvantage; he’d already earned the attention and possibly the ire of Waynesville officials, and the town still held the high ground. 

In mid-April, Teague and a code inspector met with Young at Mad Anthony’s under a flag of truce to try to resolve their differences peacefully.

Both sides made concessions, with Young agreeing to apply for permits for his roof and lights, and the town giving him more time to correct violations. The town also allowed the food truck to remain as well — for the time being. 

But in the background, a parallel discussion was being had about the larger issue of food trucks in general. The town — noticing that such operations were beginning to appear with increasing regularity — had to get caught up and figure out appropriate policies for its regulation, because it was becoming increasingly clear that the use of temporary permits like Young’s wasn’t going to be sufficient. 

 

Battle Lines Drawn

The controversy over food trucks in Waynesville was only beginning, and as awareness of the issue began to spread, a host of practical and theoretical dilemmas emerged. 

The Downtown Waynesville Association engaged in some saber rattling of its own, early on, stating that the Main Street area was no place for food trucks. DWA Executive Board President John Keith — also a Main Street business owner — broached the issue of property taxes, which food trucks obviously don’t pay.

The DWA manages Waynesville’s Municipal Service District, where business owners pay an extra 20 cents per $100 in assessed property valuation on top of the city’s rate, which currently stands just above 48.5 cents. The DWA spends that revenue on planning, marketing and improvements for the district, and recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. 

Richard Miller, the DWA’s past president and also the owner of a business within the DWA’s jurisdiction, expressed similar disdain, opining that no temporary establishments should be able to sponge off of the fertile business climate Miller and the DWA have worked hard to create, beginning in the mid-1980s.

On the other hand, isn’t that what innovators do? Entrepreneurs seek out needs, and attempt to fulfill them, making a buck in the process. If food truck operators — who have the benefit of less overhead than a brick-and-mortar establishment — have stumbled on to a lucrative economic niche, shouldn’t they be allowed to exploit it within the confines of the reasonable regulation? Isn’t that what downtown business owners like Miller and Keith did?

While members of the community openly bandied about such philosophical questions, another considerably less intellectual quandary arose — if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, is it still a truck?

The unfolding food truck ordinance didn’t exactly concern Mad Anthony’s because MA’s Kitchen is not located in the DWA’s MSD, and they certainly weren’t driving around hitting the downtown festivals and biker rallies in Maggie Valley. 

In fact, the trailer hadn’t moved at all since it was first parked, which begged the question — is it a building, or is it a vehicle? Should it abide by state building codes, or those of the department of motor vehicles?

Either way, Waynesville aldermen agreed that food trucks needed to acquire a free permit, obtainable after passing a health department inspection and complying with some other minor regulations. They also agreed that the permits would be issued for no more than 180 non-consecutive days within a calendar year on any individual lot.

But these regulations still didn’t settle things definitively for MA’s Kitchen, and the Youngs would soon find themselves in the crosshairs of a divided town board trying to simultaneously balance development and growth with zoning and permitting. 

 

Subtle diplomacy

On May 24, the Waynesville Board of Aldermen met, attempting to settle things one way or the other. 

What they came up with was, they thought, a tightly-crafted compromise that would in essence create a loophole for MA’s Kitchen that would allow it to continue to operate, without unleashing a feeding frenzy of food trucks on every street and block of the town. 

That loophole was called the “Mad Anthony’s paragraph,” which read, “A mobile food unit operating on the private property of its commissary shall be exempt from the time limit, provided that the mobile food unit is kept in good repair at all times, in the rear or side yard of the property, and does not exceed the allowable signage for the business on the lot.”

The key word in the paragraph is “commissary.”

As MA’s Kitchen sits adjacent to the building from which it acquires its supplies — its “commissary” — it would be allowed to stay under the proposed loophole.

However, immediate problems surfaced with the measure, which, as Alderman LeRoy Roberson pointed out, would apply to the entire town and not just to MA’s. 

In theory, this would allow some property owners to sidestep design standards and building codes. 

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

Glenna Young dug in to her position by saying she thought that food trucks cost too much to open and were “hard, hard work” not likely to be undertaken by hobbyists. She also pointed out that while her overhead was indeed less than a traditional restaurant, her margins were likewise much slimmer. 

During questioning by aldermen, it became clear that they were split on the measure, and the vote was postponed while the town and the Youngs reconsidered their respective stances. 

 

Showdown on Main Street

A dozen or so proponents of MA’s kitchen filtered in to the town board meeting on June 28, even though the opportunity for public comment had passed. They were there to show their support for David Young, who was right in his approach and his aesthetic and his intention to earn for himself a living and for the town tax revenue and increased employment, but wrong in his approach to it all.

Opposite them were Aldermen Gary Caldwell, Jon Feichter, LeRoy Roberson, Julia Boyd Freeman, and Mayor Gavin Brown, who were right in their approach and their aesthetic and their intention to earn for themselves the reputation of problem-solvers and for the town tax revenue and increased employment, but wrong in their inability to find a happy medium. 

Feichter and Freeman were the only two aldermen who voted to support the Youngs, both citing the need to be flexible and creative in encouraging entrepreneurship. 

But Caldwell, and especially Roberson, continued to assert that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s not a truck. Or a trailer. It’s a building, a permanent fixture that needs to be regulated according to building codes, not vehicular ones. 

Mayor Brown sided with Caldwell and Roberson, breaking the tie when he said that trucks [or trailers] licensed by the DMV aren’t permanent structures. 

The decision left almost no one happy. 

“I feel like we got burned, and I would be very leery of getting in to any more projects that involve the town,” David Young said. “Unfortunately, you can’t change a lightbulb without involving the town.”

Facebook posts by Mad Anthony’s reflected that sentiment; Young told fans that the possibility of closing both the food trailer and the bar itself was an option; fans responded by demonizing the city as shortsighted and anti-development, going so far as to blame “cronyism” and the ever-convenient fallback, “good ol’ boys.” 

“I think there would be a process where we could work with them to convert that unit to something that would work in Waynesville and be compliant with state building codes,” Teague said. “We’ll have to be kind of creative with it. And that’s fun. That’s a cool thing to do, and it could be something kind of funky, and fit in with the beer garden look. It would be great. I’d love to work on that with them.”

Glenna Young seemed to indicate some willingness to bury the hatchet with the town. 

“I didn’t get in to this with haste, and I’m not going to make any decision in anger,” she said. “If the town wants to sit down around the table and hash this out for all of our betterment, I’m not opposed to that. But big misunderstandings lead to big problems, and I can’t afford any more problems. ”

MA’s Kitchen will continue to operate until the new ordinance is finalized, after which time they’ll be given a “reasonable” amount of time to apply for a new permit, said McGuire.

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