by Joe Schwartz
Chapel Hill inched closer to allowing food trucks within town limits Monday night at a Town Council public hearing.
Council members received a proposed ordinance, already approved unanimously by the town Planning Board, which would:
-allow food trucks to be located downtown in private lots, at least 100 feet away from a restaurant entrance, as long as the trucks and the lot owner each have a permit;
-allow one food truck per 30 parking spaces in other commercial districts, with permits;
-require food truck vendors to comply with local, county and state tax regulations and to display health permits at all times;
-require food truck vendors to dispose of all trash and grease, and forbid them to offer seating;
-restrict food truck signs to those permanently attached to the vehicles and a portable menu sign smaller than 6 square feet.
“Based on these regulations, would we be able to have a food truck at the Town Hall parking lot for council meetings?” asked Councilman Matt Czajkowski asked, the only question in the 20-minute hearing.
“I believe you can do that now,” principal planner Kendal Brown answered. “It’s public property, (you could) with a special permit.”
Brown added that town staff was initially weary of allowing food trailers, but that they have learned that they come in different sizes, and smaller ones might be acceptable.
Though public turnout was sparse, two mobile food owners spoke in favor of the plan.
Becky Cascio, owner of Pie Pushers, a Durham-based food trailer, said she would be excited to come to Chapel Hill, adding that the staff’s willingness to consider trailers is “a positive addition.”
“We are happy to play along with whatever rules exist, but we do hope it falls in our favor that we are able to come into town and share our food,” Cascio said.
Steve Williams, who in March hopes to open Tumbleweeds Café, which would serve fare from a 21-foot, 1977 Airstream, also was encouraged that town staff is considering allowing trailers.
“We don’t have a need to come to Chapel Hill,” Williams said. “We’d like to have an option to come. … We are pleased that the planning department is thinking of recommending trailers. I look forward to seeing something in print from them.”
But, Kristen Smith, membership engagement coordinator for the Chapel Hill/ Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, fought the ordinance.
Speaking on behalf of her 1,100 chamber members, Smith said a survey of local business owners showed responses ranging from “negative to neutral” on the food truck ordinance.
“What the problem that we are trying to fix?” she asked. “If there’s a local food business problem it’s that in today’s economy many are struggling and the chamber does not think this is a solution that addresses this problem.”
Smith also said that if the town does decide to allow food trucks, the chamber wants them banned from downtown.
“Why would we bring in unfair competition for these restaurants and restaurateurs who have invested in our downtown and who we want to see succeed?”
Planning Board Chairwoman Del Snow said that she felt the original proposed ordinance was too restrictive. The board amended the text to increase the number of vendors allowed per lot, only require one zoning permit per vendor to allow vending on more than one site and, similarly, only one permit per lot to allow for more than just one vendor.
“We felt this was something that could be encouraging and add to vitality and just make eating more fun,” Snow said. ‘The original restrictions seemed to work against any sort of friendliness toward truck vendors.”
Though the Planning Board wanted to include a provision to require vendors to prove each year that they were paying Orange County sales tax, Brown said her research shows that the town is powerless to do so. She said if granted legislative authority, Chapel Hill could enact a food and beverage tax increase to guarantee that revenue stays local, but it would be applied to restaurants, as well.
Monday’s meeting was the latest in a series of steps Chapel Hill has taken toward welcoming food trucks to town dating back to last September, when 3Cups Managing Partner Lex Alexander petitioned the town council.
In that time, town staff has made two presentations to the council, held two public forums and met with vendors, the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Partnership. The Planning Board weighed the proposal last month.
The town will next consider, perhaps make a decision even, the food trucks debate at its Nov. 21 council meeting. Town staff will offer its take on trailers and estimate how much it would cost to enforce the rules.
Durham and Carrboro have long been food truck friendly. Last month Raleigh approved rules to allow the mobile eateries, ending a yearlong debate.