Chapel Hill warms to food trucks, considers next steps to allowing vendors in town



Chapel Hill moved closer to allowing food trucks within town limits Monday night during a public hearing where members of the Town Council expressed initial support for the mobile vendors provided that regulations could be set and enforced.

“I don’t envision this as something that would only be a benefit to the downtown,” Mayor pro Tem Jim Ward said. “I think it could be many places in this community.”

Chapel Hill is considering crafting new rules to provide better access for food trucks such as Captain Ponchos Tacos, seen here parked at the corner of Merritt Mill and Franklin streets.
  • File photo by Jeremy Lange
  • Chapel Hill is considering crafting new rules to provide better access for food trucks such as Captain Poncho's Tacos, seen here parked at the corner of Merritt Mill and Franklin streets.
The Council was responding to a September 2010 petition from 3Cups managing partner Lex Alexander and following up on a public forum from February where food truck vendors made their plea and restaurant owners urged caution.

The elected leaders learned from town staff that they could dictate how many trucks are in one location at one time but not the total number of trucks in town. They can’t require food trucks to use Chapel Hill-based commissaries, locations where the trucks dump grease and are cleaned. Staff also told the Council that it’s difficult to ensure that food truck sales made in Chapel Hill contribute to the sales tax base if the truck is based outside of the town.

Chapel Hill Principal Planner Kendal Brown also reported that there are 95 bars and eateries downtown and the dining market shows “no growth potential for the short-term.” But she also noted that, “it is possible that two different potential customer pools exist in the downtown—one that is more inclined toward indoor sit-down meals and the other preferring quick food.”

Durham and Carrboro allow food trucks. Raleigh is considering a new ordinance. In Chapel Hill, trucks are permitted to park on private lots for special events after receiving clearance from the Parks and Recreation Department. That process would remain in place for events such as Festifall even if new rules pass.

Council members Laurin Easthom and Sally Greene each favored the Carrboro model, where trucks are permitted to park in non-residential lots and no complaints have been made. Each said they think food trucks can add to the character of the town without siphoning business from brick and mortar restaurants.

But Council member Ed Harrison said Durham shouldn’t be used as a guide because the city has more space available for trucks to park.

“I know the available real estate for this kind of thing in Durham, and it’s a different planet entirely,” he said.

Council member Penny Rich questioned who will enforce the rules and how much it will cost.

“Do we have to hire someone to know the regulations in and out?” she asked. “Who will be up at 2 a.m. to check it out if?”

Ward said he’s interested in allowing food trucks but he wants to make sure they add something to the marketplace that isn’t already available. He asked town staff to consider writing rules for mobile operators that would “welcome them if it’s something not already available and if it was already available they probably should do business elsewhere.”

Added Council member Donna Bell, “We are not known as the Foodie City for nothing. We won’t eat just anything.”

The group elected to hold another public hearing on the issue in September. In the meantime, staff will consider possible fees, a permitting process and what limits to place on hours and locations.

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