After a contentious public hearing, Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission couldn’t come to an agreement about proposed rules allowing food trucks in downtown, splitting 3-3 last night. The new rules still go to City Council (after a stop at Council’s Public Safety Commission), probably on Aug. 23, but with a negative recommendation.
Staff presented the new rules, which allow 10 vendors to site food trucks in downtown, along with establishing rules for enforcement. Under the rules, being caught without a permit downtown would be a criminal offense. The changes would also expand the hours food trucks are allowed to operate to 6 a.m. to 3 a.m., though if close to a residential area outside of downtown, trucks would have to shut down at midnight.
Buncombe County oversees inspection of food trucks the same way it does restaurants, city planner Alan Glines, who presented the proposed rules, noted.
“It has to meet basic kitchen requirements that any restaurant would have to meet,” Glines said. “It’s very clear when someone’s not obeying the rules. Food safety here is not an item we need to be concerned about.”
Whether or not to allow food trucks in downtown has remained a contentious issue for months, with food truck owners asserting that they can be a thriving part of a larger scene, and that the ban unfairly restricts their ability to make a living. A poll conducted by the Downtown Association, who have remained neutral in the dispute, found opposition centering primarily around restaurant owners, while majorities of downtown residents, visitors and employees all favored the inclusion of food trucks. The rules passed the Downtown Commission 7-2 on July 8.
The restaurant owners present at the meeting largely praised the food truck owners who’ve pushed for the change, but asserted that the current proposals to relax the ban will hurt their business and open the door to un-permitted food trucks that the city will have a difficult time regulating.
The word the owners touted repeatedly was “enforcement,” something they felt the ordinance, as currently written, does not provide.
“Without the enforcement, you’re going to be overrun,” Anthony Ceratto, owner of Fiore’s, said. “You’re also looking at people coming here from Charlotte, eastern Tennessee to take the revenue away from local vendors. There’s no enforcement out there at one o’clock in the morning. It’s already an issue.”
“The minute we open the door to mobile vending, they’re going to come from all over the place,” Michel Baudouin, owner of Bouchon, said. “It’s a very dangerous proposal to accept as is.”
Other opponents felt that food trucks were tampering with what already worked well.
“I don’t see what the value of having mobile food vendors downtown is,” Larry Green, a downtown property owner, said. “I think it could ruin what we already have here. We’re doing alright, we have plenty of food downtown and the downside is noise, clutter and people walking around downtown at night.”
Dwight Butner, owner of Vincenzo’s and one of the most vocal opponents of lifting the ban, feels the process has been biased towards food truck owners, instead of “what’s best for the community as a whole.” Speaking for 10 minutes, Butner went into his history, saying he’d decided to go into the restaurant business instead of working with the NAACP or ACLU to help improve the world.
“Times are hard right now, opening a restaurant costs about a half a million dollars and employs about 30 people,” Butner said. “Will we be attracting more restaurants with jobs or more food trucks? Which brings more capital into the community? Can anyone tell me how the ordinary taxpayer will benefit from the change? I just don’t see a big upside to this.”
Steve Frabitore, president of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, said the proposal was not a product of consensus, and serious concerns remains.
“All cities with food trucks take issues and problems, we’re trying to take the most intelligent approach, it has very little to do with where dedicated local citizens put their trucks,” Frabitore said.
Proponents said the ordinance is well-crafted and that it’s time to accept food trucks downtown.
“It’s a different mentality now than food trucks had 20-30 years ago,” Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine said, noting that many owners use local foods in their trucks. “Everywhere, progressive cities are including food trucks. This is a stepping stone, hopefully, to joining the big guys in the brick-and-mortar restaurants.”
“Enforcement concerns should not be a barrier to moving this forward to City Council as is,” Tim Peck, a Council candidate and libertarian activist, told the commission, praising what he saw as the new ordinance’s “excellent regulatory language.”
Food truck owner Greg Zocher, of PlanIt Organic Cafe, said he’s called inspectors about illegal food trucks, and seeks to help the local economy.
“It’s about supporting locals, my goal is to buy from farmers and serve to locals,” Zocher said.
Marni Graves, owner of the Pink Taco food truck, noted that “this has been in the Downtown Commission since last year and passed 7-2. A lot has been talked about, and gone over, including the concern of enforcement. This has been crafted through many meetings to get where we are today. I think it’s more about emotions and free market competition than how it’s actually going to run amok in the city.”
Graves added that food truck owners were willing to help with enforcement by identifying violators, “when we’re downtown, we don’t want illegal vendors rolling in and stomping on our turf.”
City staff, including Shannon Tuch, said they’d conferred with the Asheville Police Department while crafting the changes to the ordinance, and, despite the owners’ concerns, believe it will be enforced.
Tuch also differed with the vision, conjured by some opponents of the changes, of a downtown overrun by food trucks if the ban was lifted, due both to demand and the limited sites available in the downtown area.
“We just don’t think there’s going to be that huge a demand,” she said.
The commission was deeply divided on the matter.
“I’m extremely concerned about enforcement, especially between midnight and 3 a.m., I just don’t see how you’re going to get people out at that late an hour,” commission member Holly Shriner said. “I feel that we have the people that are not wonderful people, that aren’t doing the local foods, that are going to be a problem.”
Commission member Buzzy Cannady said he understood the restaurant owners’ concerns.
“If I was a restaurant owner I’d be against this, when I’m paying huge taxes and paying all this business expenses and then you’re going to let someone sell food out of a truck,” Cannaday said. “These people pay a lot of money to have a restaurant.”
Vice Chair Darryl Hart mentioned concerns about enforcement, but also said he trusted staff’s ability to oversee the changed ordinance.
“The key here is that we provide the opportunity for folks to do this,” Hart said.
Commission member Jerome Jones was among the most supportive of the changes.
“I’ve been to your restaurants many, many times and I’ve eaten empanadas from food trucks,” he said. “It’s going to happen. Better to get out front, put down some regulation and see the magnitude. More businesses don’t necessarily detract. In fact, they can add to business.”
Jones compared food trucks to the Pritchard Park drum circle: once controversial, but now considered indispensable to the urban scene.
In the end, the board split down the middle, with Hart, Jones and Brooks voting in favor of the rules changes, while Smith, Cannady and Shriner opposed them. Since the motion couldn’t muster enough votes to pass, the new rules go to Council with a negative recommendation. Council’s Public Safety Committee will also look at the proposed changes during their Aug. 16 meeting.
— David Forbes, senior news reporter