News: CJ Exclusives

Food Trucks Hitting More Road Bumps in Raleigh

Concerns about competition with restaurants postpone council action

Food truck operators have been waiting since April to find out whether they can set up shop in Raleigh. They were hoping city council would have made a decision in May, and then again in July, but now they won’t get an answer until at least September thanks to continuing objections from restaurant owners and council members.

Current city ordinances allow a food truck operator to apply for a permit to operate at “special events,” but there’s no provision allowing the trucks to sell their wares routinely on city streets or in parking lots. Raleigh City Council was supposed to vote July 19 on an ordinance that would have allowed food trucks to park on private property in limited locations throughout the city, but the vote was postponed over concerns the law was not restrictive enough.

Food truck vendors hoped disagreements over the ordinance could be worked out in time for the council’s Aug. 2 meeting, but they were not.

Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin said city lawmakers are having difficulty striking “the balance between protecting the interests of the restaurant owners, but still allowing these young folks with food trucks to become entrepreneurs.”

Protecting the restaurants

The initial version of the ordinance required food trucks to park at least 50 feet away from competing restaurants. Restaurant owners complained that wasn’t far enough, so council changed it to 100 feet. Because restaurant owners still aren’t satisfied, Mayor Charles Meeker has recommended the rule be changed to 150 feet.

“I am concerned that if we get too aggressive with the distance requirement, there won’t be any place left for food trucks to actually set up,” Baldwin told CJ.

At a July 26 Law and Public Safety Committee Meeting, Baldwin asked city planners whether a 150-foot perimeter would prevent competition between food trucks and surrounding restaurants and bars.

Planner Thomas Crane said he didn’t know exactly how many parking spaces still would be available to food trucks if the distance were increased to 150 feet, but that it would give them “a much smaller and narrower area to locate” along “narrow corridors like Glenwood South.”

Baldwin asked if it were possible to make the 150-rule apply to downtown only or to simply put a cap on the number of food trucks allowed downtown.

Crane said it was possible but would be difficult to define the boundaries of “downtown.”

Baldwin said she thought food trucks would fit better in industrial-zoned parking lots, away from downtown. She suggested exempting those parking lots from an “acreage requirement” that limits the amount of trucks allowed per acre. Such an exemption would let trucks “corral” at places like Big Boss Brewery, a bar in North Raleigh that welcomes food trucks.

Protecting the children

Also at the committee meeting, council member Thomas Crowder was concerned that the proposed ordinance allowed food trucks to stay out too late and to park too close to neighborhoods. The truck’s noisy generators could keep school children awake at night, he said.

Baldwin explained to him that food trucks have to close at 10 p.m. (rather than 3 a.m., after bars close) if they are located within 400 feet of a residential zone, and that they are not allowed to park within 150 feet of a residential zone at any time.

Crowder argued the buffer wasn’t large enough, that most school-age children are in bed by 9, and that all generators everywhere should be turned off by 9.

Crowder said he also was concerned that food trucks could become “centers of entertainment” near university-oriented housing, distracting students from studying and sleeping.

Protecting the environment

Ed Wills, the owner of two local McDonald’s franchises, asked if anyone was concerned about the carbon emissions food trucks would produce.

Council member Eugene Weeks said he was.

After food truck owners said they’d been waiting for a year for the ordinance to be completed, Weeks said he still had concerns about “health and emissions that hadn’t even been addressed yet.” He said he didn’t care how long it took to get the ordinance right: “This is Raleigh and rules change to improve the quality of life.”

The Law and Public Safety Committee plans to revisit the food truck ordinance later this month. If members are able to resolve these and other unsettled issues, the ordinance may be ready for city council to vote on in September.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.