Since food trucks first began popping up around town a half-dozen years ago, Raleigh has had some of the tightest restrictions in the entire Triangle.
Until 2011, when the city passed an ordinance after an excruciating year of debate, trucks were prohibited from operating within city limits. Until December 2012 they could not operate in most of downtown. Even today, they can set up only on private property that's not within 100 feet of a restaurant; both truck and property owner have to secure permits.
Even so, food trucks have found their place in the city's entrepreneurial ecosystem. According to city records, 75 trucks and 39 properties have active permits. Last year, Mobile Cuisine magazine rated Raleigh the third-best place in the country to open a food truck.
This is why food truckers were surprised to learn that under the ongoing citywide rezoning, the city would prohibit them from operating in a new mixed-use district called NX. (This is the same zoning in which the city agreed to allow bars only if they don't have dance floors.)
On its own, the impact wouldn't be great: The NX zoning covers about 500 of the city's 92,838 acres. But food truckers worry that this signals movement in the wrong direction.
"There's a disconnect between people making these rules and the people who have to live by these rules," says Jessica McCarthy, the co-owner of The Humble Pig, a member of the RDU Food Truck Association. "Right now it doesn't affect too much. What we're worried about is it's opening up a door."
They first learned about the prohibition in April, when Empire Properties applied for a food-truck permit on behalf of a tenant, House of Swank, a shop on Bloodworth Street that sells T-shirts with sayings like "CLIMAX, NC: Where People Come Together." House of Swank owner John Pugh says the city told him that he was not allowed to host trucks under his current zoning—a stricture he'd ignored before—and he couldn't do so under the new zoning, either.
Pugh says he's fine with the NX zoning itself, but he wants the city to change what's allowed in NX districts.
"If they are gonna change the zoning," he says, "they'll be knocking out lots of places in Raleigh that have food trucks."
Planning and zoning administrator Travis Crane says the city's intention was to differentiate between NX and CX, a higher-intensity mixed-use district. NX is closer to residential neighborhoods, and was designed to serve as buffer. Food trucks are among several types of business allowed in CX but not NX.
At last Tuesday's City Council meeting, however, three food-truck boosters—Shop Local Raleigh executive director Jennifer B. Martin, Deli-icious Food Truck owner Susan Tower and local blogger Art Sheppard—warned that the prohibition would "negatively affect the city of Raleigh on the loss of sales-tax revenue, the loss of revenue on permit fees, and will affect Raleigh's unique and small business community," as Martin put it.
That seemed to be news to the City Council. "Are you saying if your business is located in an NX zone, you can't have a food truck?" Mayor Nancy McFarlane asked during their presentation.
"I feel like I got the impression—I totally think it was an oversight in a sense," Sheppard told the INDY a few days later.
"I personally feel like House of Swank would be a good location," says Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin. "Maybe we do have to look at these and see if there aren't unintended consequences."
She wants vendors to offer specific places where food trucks are allowed but would be banned under the new zoning. If the need exists, she says, and if people want it, the city could change what's allowed in NX districts.
"We have text changes all the time," she says. "We can change the UDO."