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Food trucks (mostly) prevail; some prohibitions remain

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It is safe for barbecue, pizza and ice cream to return to Durham Central Park.

Durham city planners have reworked some of the proposed amendments to the Mobile Vending Provisions ordinance in order to relax rules on food trucks. Grace Smith, planning supervisor for the Durham City-County Planning Department, delivered the news Monday night to a crowd of Triangle residents, food truck vendors and several city officials, including Mayor Bill Bell and City Councilmen Steve Schewel and Mike Woodard. (Schewel is president of Carolina Independent Publications, which owns the Independent Weekly.)

After meeting with representatives from several city government departments, the planning department abolished the rule prohibiting mobile vendors from parking within the Durham Central Park Zone during the farmers market, which operates Wednesdays and Saturdays. Additionally, administrators reduced the required distance that mobile vendors may park from brick-and-mortar restaurants from 100 feet to 50 feet.

"A lot of the code is staying the same, but we're trying to make it less restrictive," Smith said. "Durham is very unique and one size just doesn't fit all."

Several people expressed relief over the relaxed rules but still found problems with some clauses in the ordinance. A common complaint is that food trucks are still prohibited in exclusionary zones, within 50 feet from restaurant entrances and 300 feet from permitted special events in the Durham Central Park Zone.

"Exclusionary zones blur the zone between private and public property," said Nick Hawthorne-Johnson, co-founder of The Cookery. "[They] create two classes of restaurants in the eye of the law, and then discriminate against one."

Durham resident Matt Davis called the rules "overly prohibitive."

"I'd like to have the choice as a citizen to determine who's where by spending my dollars. I think some of these restrictions eliminate my ability to choose."

Other attendees said the ordinance would impose unnecessary regulations on food trucks and would harm innovation and entrepreneurship in Durham's food culture. This has become a cornerstone of Durham's identity and distinguishes it from cities like Chapel Hill and Raleigh, which have imposed stricter rules on mobile vendors.

"Why is not OK for a food truck to be 10 feet from the door of a restaurant?" asked Durham resident Scott Harmon. "I just haven't heard a good reason why to have that in the ordinance yet. We're in danger of messing with Durham's brand here."

Although much of the meeting was dedicated to the changes Smith announced, she also noted that several parts of the ordinance remain intact. Mobile food vendors can't occupy more than one parking spot and are required to provide trash receptacles and to leave safe paths for pedestrians. The Finance Department will continue collecting required business taxes from mobile vendors. The Planning Department will oversee the vendors' compliance with the rules, with assistance, if necessary, by the Durham Police Department.

The proposed changes still do not affect private property.

Smith also said that the proposed ordinance may change more based on feedback from community members, restaurant owners and food truck vendors. Durham City Council must vote on any proposed changes.

"I think it's an important conversation that had to happen," said Becky Cascio, co-owner of Pie Pushers. "I think getting a hold on how we all feel and putting us as food trucks in the position to work with the farmers market and to work with Durham Central Park [is important], and we might not have done that on our own, or not yet."

In addition to community members, several city officials expressed support for mobile vendors.

"I too want to keep our unique food culture going," Woodard said. "The key word here is conversation. We don't want to over-regulate. We don't want to run people out. We want to make it better and keep Durham the unique community that it is."

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