Food trucks are hot topic

HURLOCK — The challenge of licensing and regulating food trucks in town continued to be a hot button issue at the Hurlock Council’s July 23 meeting. The problem is designing regulations to control a potential influx of food trucks. Questions remain: How many food sources can a town of 2,100 support? If the trucks are not controlled by town officials how long will it be before they begin to affect the existing brick and mortar businesses?

Two meetings and two workshops have focused on designing regulations with public input. Several months ago the council held a public meeting specifically for local business owners to discuss their concerns. The Council and Mayor Michael Henry promised their full support to solve problems and emphasized they are anxious to keep businesses in town.

Then the food trucks appeared. If all are approved there will be five in town within the next couple of months. Based on a 2002 ordinance they can ask for a permit, pay a $25 fee, and sell food. The ordinance, while not specifically addressing food trucks, allows “street vendors” to sell “their wares” with a permit upon council approval.

The council’s original intent was to clarify the old ordinance by establishing parameters. Ideas from previous meetings were discussed, and re-discussed during the 7/23 meeting “So we can wrap this up and send it to the attorney,” according to Mayor Henry. “With everything written up before for a proposed ordinance several questions were left out. Do we want the food trucks to pay an annual fee in addition to their application? Salisbury charges $50 for the town; Baltimore charges $75; DC charges $300.” Unfortunately, there were was no research of fees or impacts in very small towns like Hurlock.

Councilman Charles Cephas suggested reviewing the charges for a brick and mortar building and lowering that fee and asking vendors to pay a higher fee to balance it out. Town Manager John Avery explained the brick and mortar stores “are paying an annual license fee to the county and property and business certification taxes, which is personal property, to the town. There is no annual permit fee to the town.”

The discussion turned to charging an annual fee for food trucks. Councilman Russell Murphy said, “I’d like to see more money come to the town” and he suggested a $100 annual fee. The application fee remained $25 and a $100 annual fee for food trucks was agreed on. With five food trucks the town would receive $500 annually as opposed to five brick and mortar food service businesses that pay thousands of dollars in property and corporate taxes on personal property.

A huge issue for the small town is how far away from established businesses food trucks should be required to stay. The 2002 ordinance says “between 150’ and 300’. The council eventually agreed on 200’ which is about 2 times the length of the town office building or about from the corner of Poplar and Main to the post office. The current businesses want more separation.

The council agreed the food trucks should be restricted from downtown which consists of the five-way intersection at Rt. 307 to the blinking light and one block over. That leaves the businesses on Rts. 307 and 392 outside of downtown where the 200’ distance would be applied.
Where to park? Using town property could raise serious and costly liability issues. Using private property, said Attorney Merriken, means the trucks will need parking permission from property owners. Mr. Avery added, “They have to find someplace to put them.” The issue was not resolved at the meeting.

Special events like the Fall Festival, and ice cream trucks, are excluded from the ordinance. A-frame signs, electronic, or other signs would be permitted on the trucks.

The major issue for existing food service businesses is direct competition with food trucks. Mayor Henry suggested no items should be sold that are in direct competition with the brick and mortar businesses, i.e. fried chicken. That was the sticking point for Attorney Merriken who asked for more specificity. He referenced a case in Baltimore which was deemed too “vague.” If an ordinance says “no Italian food” and a truck vendor decides to offer meatballs, is that a similar food? He emphasized “we can’t just say ‘similar or like products.’”

The Mayor said the decision to offer a permit still depends on council approval. The council can “go with specifics or rely on the council to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Councilman Russell Murphy suggested omitting that issue and revisiting it at a later date.

Councilman Earl Murphy said “We have to continue to protect those who are here who have committed to being here 365 days a year; but, still be open to new ideas and new food tastes … I want to see growth but don’t overpower those who are already here.”

Mr. Avery reported one vendor is here, one is pending, two have applied, and one will apply. “Two Chicks Catering has applied but is in absolute competition with the other businesses.”

After much back and forth the council decided to set food truck hours of operation at 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. six days a week excluding Sundays – in direct competition with existing businesses during all peak hours. Mr. Merriken suggested the council ask itself ‘what is the legitimate government purpose of limiting hours.’ Why open at 7? Why close at 7? He said he needs that information for the draft ordinance.

Michelle Seretis, Pizza Palace co-owner with her husband Chris, was allowed to speak. She said they have been there for 26 years; employed a lot of people and teens; backed a lot of teams; contributed to the food bank; helped seniors; and, fed the homeless. “We pay a lot of taxes including workers comp for employees.”

“We are a small town,” she said. “This is a really, really small town to bring food trucks into. We are not Salisbury; we are not Annapolis. I think this is really unfair to us business owners who have been here a long time. We don’t need more food. We need CPA’s, medical facilities, and other types of businesses. There is plenty of food for the 2,100. What little bit of traffic we have drives through to get somewhere else and don’t stop. We have no issue with special events and the vendors who come in. But on a day to day basis what is it we aren’t offering that our residents want? We have Subway, we have Chinese food, and we have chicken, steaks, pizza in all the food businesses in town together. We might not have Soul or Moroccan food but we have food.” Later she noted that “more and more (food trucks) will come and put the current businesses out of business. You have no idea what’s coming.”

The Mayor said “it’s not a question of letting them in. That was decided back in 2002. We are changing it to try and specify so they don’t come and park outside of your door. To make it fair for you and fair for them. If Pete (Petes PeteZa) sees he can’t make it here he’s not going to come back.”

Councilman Earl Murphy added the pizza truck would be in direct competition with Pizza Palace. We’re trying to protect the food vendors already here.” They include nine who serve food either in conjunction with other items or are strictly food service: Pizza Palace, Mom & Pops, E&L, Subway, China Express, C&J, Stop & Shop, Goose Creek, and Food Rite.

Mr. Merriken emphasized the ordinance “can be and will probably be modified after the council sees what I have done. But, I haven’t even drafted it so we’re not at the stage of introduction, advertising, or voting yet.”

Town Manager Avery said he put his views at the bottom of the draft ordinance and wished to state them: “I believe it is the council’s responsibility to protect the town businesses and promote the growth of the downtown area and the council should keep the interests of the residents and the town businesses foremost and the council should support the existing businesses.”

The council voted 3-1 to approve a permit for Petes PeteZa.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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