Keep on truckin’

Awaiting an opportunity: Food-truck owners (in front row) observing the Council hearing. Many of them spoke in favor of new rules that would allow their mobile kitchens in downtown. Photo by Halima Flynt
Awaiting an opportunity: Food-truck owners (in front row) observing the Council hearing. Many of them spoke in favor of new rules that would allow their mobile kitchens in downtown. Photo by Halima Flynt

Asheville City Council Aug. 23, 2011 meeting

  • Some restaurant owners, residents opposed
  • Second reading slated for Sept. 13

Yet another chapter in the continuing battle over whether to allow food trucks in downtown Asheville ended Aug. 23 when City Council narrowly approved new rules rescinding a ’90s-era ban on mobile food vendors in the central business district.

But the fight isn’t quite over yet. Because the changes to the city's Unified Development Ordinance passed by only one vote, the measure will come up for a second reading Sept. 13.

Under the pilot program, up to 10 mobile vendors could get permits to operate downtown, subject to rules governing location, business hours and power sources. Unlicensed food-truck operators would face misdemeanor charges, including fines and possible jail time. According to a staff report, both the Police Department and city employees believe they could enforce the rules as part of their normal routine.

“We don't expect it to be particularly burdensome,” Assistant Planning Director Shannon Tuch told Council.

About a year ago, the Downtown Commission appointed a subcommittee to look into changing the rules, in response to increasing numbers of food-truck operators setting up shop around town. The Downtown Commission approved the resulting rules July 8 on a 7-2 vote. But on Aug. 3, the Planning and Zoning Commission deadlocked 3-3. City Council's Public Safety Committee unanimously endorsed the changes Aug. 16.

Supporters of the changes say it’s time for an outdated ban to end, arguing that budding entrepreneurs have a right to operate a business and realize their dreams.

Opponents, including some downtown residents and restaurant owners, raise concerns about competition with existing businesses, impaired quality of life and diminished property values. Staff will monitor the results, and Council plans to revisit the issue in about a year.

Leveling the playing field

“To actively limit this movement's ability to flourish is un-American and against the free market,” proclaimed Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine. “Things that are uniquely Asheville, like great food and small-business owners, deserved to be embraced by the community,” added Phillips, who founded the Asheville Street Food Coalition.

Drew Maykuth, a chef at The Admiral in West Asheville, voiced support for allowing food trucks. “Opening a restaurant is a luxury few can afford,” he noted. “I think there is apathy and stagnation when it comes to the culinary landscape here: What this city needs is competition. Competition makes us better at our craft and responsible to our patrons.”

“The fear that this city will be overrun by food trucks is absurd,” added Maykuth. “Asheville is better than this.”

Nate Kelly, who owns The Lowdown food truck, said: “Food trucks [should be] allowed the same rights as other businesses. Instead of competing with Asheville restaurants, it will draw people downtown. Change can be scary, but it's necessary to avoid stagnation.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. Lisa Landis pointed up the contrast between the $2.2 million in tax incentives the city recently gave Linamar Corp., a Canadian auto-parts manufacturer, and the many rules that she said hamper small businesses. Some local officials, noted Landis, had bragged that Linamar chose Asheville because “We rolled out the red carpet, not the red tape.”

In that context, she continued, “I have to question this red tape that’s being put on [food-truck owners].”

Quality-of-life issues

“I have a real problem with the hours you're proposing here: 6 a.m. to 3 a.m.? I have a real problem with these folks being here that late,” noted downtown business owner Larry Holt, saying the food trucks shouldn’t be allowed to operate after 10 p.m. or midnight. He also worried that the lack of restroom facilities might lead to more public urination and defecation.

Mary Ann West of Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors raised similar concerns. “Having a food court operation under our windows until 3 a.m. is rough and would adversely affect the quality of our life downtown,” she said. “It would make it unlivable, and it would also hurt the value of our condos.” Like Holt, West wanted the food trucks shut down at midnight.

But fellow downtown resident Joe Cobble said he has no problem with allowing the trucks. “Let's have some little guys in business; let's give them a chance,” he urged. “We can live with it. If things get out of hand, we can always bring it back before you.”

A survey conducted by the Asheville Downtown Association (which took no official position in the debate) found that downtown residents, visitors and employees were heavily in favor of allowing food trucks, while business owners were split, with many opposed to the move.

City staff say they don't expect a major zoning issue, since the rules and basic physical limitations place inherent limits on the number of food trucks. Operators would have to set up in a parking lot — with the property owner’s permission, perhaps involving some financial arrangement.

Not everyone shared staff’s optimism, however. “You are monkeying with downtown's economy, that's what you're doing here,” declared Dwight Butner, who owns Vincenzo's Ristorante. Noise and competition with struggling independent restaurants are major issues, he asserted, but his three minutes ran out before he could finish his remarks.

Council members sharply divided

In response to “the concern about putting pressure on existing restaurants,” Council member Bill Russell said: “We live in a free-market economy; that's a lesser concern.” Russell also said he felt the planned enforcement would be adequate, praising the process used to develop the ordinance.

Council member Gordon Smith also voiced support for allowing food trucks, saying the process had addressed his concerns as well.

Some Council members also questioned the extended hours, however. “I'd personally rather see something like midnight — 3.a.m., to me, brings to mind 'college town.' I wonder if that's something we want to bring into Asheville,” said Esther Manheimer. But she also praised the ordinance as a whole and staff's commitment to monitoring how it pans out, joking, “We're jumping off a cliff, but it's low.”

Rather than a college town, countered Smith, the extended hours reminded him of European cities where late-night dining is part of the culture.

And Russell noted later that letting the trucks operate till 3 a.m. was intended to give people leaving bars in the wee hours a way to get something to eat. Staff explained that since other downtown businesses — including those located near residences — aren't given any curfew, the Downtown Commission had decided to give the food trucks a long leash.

Vice Mayor Brownie Newman also worried about late-night noise. His amendment to impose an 11 p.m. curfew on downtown food trucks using a generator and 2 a.m. for those with regular electrical service was approved 5-2, with Smith and Russell opposed. Asked if he would consider midnight/3 a.m. limits instead, Newman replied, “I'd rather err on the side of quality of life.”

Council member Cecil Bothwell then weighed in with an amendment requiring food trucks to use standard electrical service. It was approved 4-3, with Jan Davis, Russell and Smith opposed. Bothwell's amendment effectively nullified Newman's, except for the 2 a.m. closing time, which remains in place.

Davis, who owns a downtown tire store, said that while he respected the food-truck owners' entrepreneurial spirit, he worried about the impact on existing businesses. Multiple restaurant owners, noted Davis, had approached him and “asked us to please not do this. Ten new points of sale,” he added, “sound great during the summer; not so great in February.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy, meanwhile, expressed a number of fears, including trash, fires caused by propane tanks attached to the trucks, and drains clogged by operators dumping their grease. Some of those concerns had been addressed by staff earlier in the meeting or in the info packet.

Despite the months-long process, Bellamy felt the proposed rules hadn't been properly vetted and the permit fees — $100 for a food truck and another $100 for each space they’re allowed to operate in — were insufficient. “We should allow for some more comments,” said the mayor, adding, “That fee is way too low.”

And in response to Landis’ comments, Bellamy said: “It's not a matter of creating red tape. This is not the same as the Linamar deal — they shouldn't even be compared.”

The mayor also wanted to require food trucks to be at least 100 feet away from existing restaurants.

City staff, however, said the Downtown Commission had extensively discussed the idea and ultimately rejected it. Staff also explained that the state Division of Motor Vehicles regulates propane tanks on trucks, and that anyone emptying grease into a storm drain would face penalties under the city's storm-water rules.

City Attorney Bob Oast noted that, under state law, the application fees must reflect the amount of staff time needed to process an application.

In the end, the ordinance was approved 4-3, with Bothwell, Bellamy and Davis on the short end.

Bothwell’s “no” vote came despite his proposed changes having been accepted. Surprised, Russell asked, “You do know what we're voting on, right?” Bothwell said he didn’t think the application fee was high enough for the city to recoup its costs. Russell offered to work out the fee issues in future Finance Committee meetings, but Bothwell stood firm.

Phillips said after the meeting that the electrical requirement didn't bother her, since most vendors already use standard electrical power or can easily shift to it. The food-truck owners, she added, would like to be able to serve after the bars close, but mostly they just want to start selling downtown, to help offset the challenges these businesses already face.

“The heat kills us, the rain kills us: It's already an uphill battle,” noted Phillips.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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One thought on “Keep on truckin’

  1. Voltro

    It’s great that a compromise could be reached on this issue.

    I love the comments that downtown resident Joe Cobble had on the issue: “We can live with it. If things get out of hand, we can always bring it back before you.” Joes attitude reflects the spirit of the welcoming, progressive community that’s made Asheville such a great place to be. Thanks for speaking up, Joe!

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