What the truck?

Truckin’ in: Food trucks at the recent LAAFF event. New rules passed by Council allow food trucks downtown. Photo by Jonathan Welch
Truckin’ in: Food trucks at the recent LAAFF event. New rules passed by Council allow food trucks downtown. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Proposed rules allowing food trucks downtown once again dominated the agenda during Asheville City Council’s Sept. 13 meeting. After a lengthy public hearing and contentious debate, Council members had narrowly approved the move Aug. 23 on a 4-3 vote. Because of that slim margin, however, the city's development guidelines required a second reading.

Proponents of overturning a ’90s-era ban on mobile food vendors in the central business district say the trucks would make an excellent addition to the city’s food scene while creating opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Opponents, including some restaurant owners, have raised concerns about noise, trash and the impact on existing businesses. During the Aug. 23 session, Mayor Terry Bellamy also worried about the risk of fire (from the trucks’ propane tanks) and clogged storm drains (from dumped grease).

Council still divided

On Sept. 13, city staff addressed several concerns Council members had previously raised, saying they would inspect propane tanks and closely monitor any problems with the new businesses. The new rules will allow up to 10 food trucks to operate downtown until 2 a.m.

And though multiple Council members had said the proposed permit fees were too low, staff (including City Attorney Bob Oast) maintained that the city's hands were tied: State law allows cities to charge only for direct expenses, such as what it actually costs them to process an application. The city could add a privilege-license fee, noted Oast, but it could not exceed $25.

“The fee cannot include the time with stakeholders or spent developing the ordinance: That's all part of our long-range planning function,” Assistant Planning Director Shannon Tuch explained. Vice Mayor Brownie Newman later added an amendment requiring staff to monitor those direct costs, to see if the city could legitimately increase the fees later on.

Council member Esther Manheimer cited concerns about aesthetics, operating hours and the number of trucks allowed (which she wanted to reduce to five).

“I'm hoping that what we're really doing here is launching a pilot program: When you do that, you should be pretty cautious,” she argued. “So if it doesn't go well, you don't have a difficult time scaling it back or repealing it.”

Council member Jan Davis, who’d opposed the move last month, seconded Manheimer’s motion, noting, “This may help the food truck owners too: They don't know how hard the economy might be this winter.” Bellamy also supported the motion, leaving it one vote shy of approval.

At the Aug. 23 meeting, Manheimer had criticized letting the trucks stay open so late, saying it reminded her more of “a college town” than Asheville. She wanted them to shut down by 11 p.m. (There’s no restriction on how late brick-and-mortar restaurants can operate.) That motion, however, failed for lack of a second.

Council member Cecil Bothwell, meanwhile, had proposed last month that food trucks be required to use plug-in electrical power rather than noisy generators. Yet after his Council colleagues approved that amendment, Bothwell voted against the rules, citing concerns about the fees.

This time, however, he supported them, though he did raise the specter of food trucks parking near schools and peddling less-healthy food to students.

Council member Gordon Smith praised the lengthy process by which the rules were developed, saying, “It's likely imperfect; it will take some continual revisiting, but I'm very comfortable with the process it's gone through, and we can have a diversity here in our foodtopia that will allow for increased convenience and affordability.”

Mayor Bellamy asked for two separate votes: one on the new rules for downtown, and one on the revised rules affecting all food trucks within the city limits. Her motion was approved 4-3, with Bothwell, Smith and Council member Bill Russell opposed.

In the end, Council approved allowing food trucks downtown on a 5-2 vote, with Bellamy and Davis opposed. The citywide rules were unanimously approved.

Suzy Phillips, who owns Gypsy Queen Cuisine, thanked Council. Beginning Sept. 14, the city is accepting permit applications.

Other business

On other fronts, Council members unanimously:
• approved allowing the proposed Skyloft condominium development in the East End/Valley Street neighborhood to expand from the 69 units originally approved to 77. Progressive Consultants has taken over the project after the original developer dropped out due to economic problems. The new proposal keeps the same design but shifts to smaller units and surface parking.
• approved new rules empowering planning staff to allow commercial vehicles, on a case-by-case basis, to access a business via residential streets, if this would entail less disruption of pedestrian traffic.

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

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