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New rules coming for SD food trucks?

Panel forwards proposed restrictions on vendors to San Diego City Council without recommendations

Food truck operators are crying foul over proposed citywide regulations that they say would significantly restrict where and when their mobile businesses could operate in San Diego.

The new rules, which go before the full City Council on March 3, were reviewed Wednesday by the council’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee, which heard numerous comments from mobile food vendors who fear that the proposal could put them out of business. The committee agreed to forward the proposed ordinance to the council without a specific recommendation.

Efforts to establish more clear-cut rules for the food truck industry grew in part out of growing tensions between brick-and-mortar restaurants and mobile-food operations, which for years have been largely unregulated by the city of San Diego.

While the trucks are subject to very specific health standards governed by state and local regulations, there are no existing municipal code provisions that apply specifically to mobile operators serving food to the general public on private property. The zoning code specifies only pushcarts.

As the city’s gourmet food trucks gave grown in numbers and popularity, operators have inevitably clashed with restaurants, particularly in denser urban neighborhoods.

Without specific rules, San Diego’s growing food truck industry has remained in legal limbo as city officials, working with food truck operators, restaurateurs and community groups, struggled to craft compromise legislation.

Of greatest concern to the gourmet food trucks are restrictions that would effectively ban their operations in the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy, as well as portions of several beach areas.

“Financially, we have to be able to operate in these areas. We can’t survive if we can’t,” said Christian Murcia, owner of two food trucks and Curbside Bites, which manages food truck gatherings. “The regulations are also counterintuitive to everything the city is trying to be: having a walkable downtown and supporting small businesses.

“The regular business person has been priced out of downtown and Little Italy. You have to be really wealthy or part of a chain restaurant.”

Senior city planner Amanda Lee pointed out that no part of what San Diego is proposing should be construed as a ban because exceptions are allowed for private catering and special events.

Among the key regulations that have been proposed:

• Food trucks would be outlawed in the Gaslamp Quarter and much of Little Italy.

•  No food trucks would be allowed within the first two to three blocks adjacent to the beach in such communities as Ocean Beach, parts of Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla.

• A prohibition on food trucks within “parking-impacted neighborhoods” surrounding San Diego State, University of San Diego and UC San Diego.

• For food trucks operating within 500 feet of a dwelling unit, hours of operation would be limited to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday. (Some operators say the effect would be to ban mobile vendors in dense urban neighborhoods like downtown and North Park where there are many apartment and condo complexes near commercial areas).

• Commercial properties who want to host a food truck would be required to obtain a permit costing between $491 to $935 for each location, a cost that would likely be picked up by the food truck owner.

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who chairs the council committee, echoed the concerns of restaurateurs who feel that food trucks are able to come into commercial districts without having to pay the high rents that restaurants must pay.

“A lot of (the restaurants) were here first, and I don’t think it’s right to pull right up to another business,” she said.

Efforts to more strictly regulate food trucks have been closely watched by the Southern California Food Vendors Association, which has sued a dozen cities over what it sees as anti-competitive regulations. All but one of those cities has backed off on efforts to ban such operations, said Matt Geller, CEO of the vendors association.

“What we’ve seen is this knee-jerk reaction by cities to have food trucks on one side and restaurants on the other, and they want this compromise,” Geller said in an interview. “These (restrictions) are really just a veiled attempt to restrict competition instead of what they should be doing, which is protecting public safety.”

City Councilman Scott Sherman expressed concern about different treatment for certain areas of the city, which he fears could open up the city to litigation.

In San Diego County, Oceanside, Carlsbad and Vista have loosened their food truck rules without creating much of a stir, but other cities have wrestled with the same kinds of issues San Diego is facing.

Last year, Escondido’s City Council decided to loosen regulations that had outlawed most of the gourmet-style food trucks in the city.

This article orginally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune on February 12, 2014.

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