Food trucks given green light

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

The Port City is opening up to the food truck craze — with a few caveats.

That was the 4-2 decision of Alexandria’s top elected officials Saturday after a protracted debate on the merits of the industry and whether mobile eateries belong in the city. The wide-ranging — and spirited — discussion touched upon the role of government in the marketplace, the economics of restaurants and concerns that food trucks would run roughshod in a town celebrated for its adherence to its history.

In the end, city councilors opted — as expected — to launch a pilot program for the mobile eateries, which enjoy enormous popularity in nearby Washington and Arlington. Mayor Bill Euille was not in attendance.

The narrowly agreed upon trial run lets food trucks serve hungry patrons until October 2015 at off-street sites — public parks, schools and municipal property — as well as farmer’s markets, special events and private gatherings, provided the property owner gives permission. It comes at a price, though: Food truck operators need to pony up hundreds of dollars in various fees to do business in Alexandria.

The compromise comes after months of discussion. Though many at this weekend’s public hearing decried the lack of input from residents, food trucks have been fiercely debated since City Manager Rashad Young unveiled proposed regulations for the mobile restaurants last spring.

While not formally barred from doing business in Alexandria, the four-wheeled eateries fall under the Port City’s stringent curbside vending regulations, which make it all but impossible for them to operate in town. But that seemed poised to change last year, when Young’s plan to let food trucks operate came to light.

Opponents — many of them local restaurateurs — quickly denounced the measure and Young retreated, forming a task force comprised of stakeholders to study the issue. Months of public meetings, though, failed to bridge the divide between food truck owners and their critics.

City officials forged ahead regardless, presenting the planning commission and city council with a revised food truck ordinance in April. Though the proposal restricted food trucks in the city’s most popular neighborhoods — Carlyle, Del Ray and Old Town — critics remained up in arms.

Faced with mounting pressure and growing concerns, city councilors last week struck a gentleman’s agreement to pull the controversial aspects out. Delaying a decision on curbside vending, councilors agreed to push ahead with allowing off-street food service at the weekend public hearing.

FOOD FIGHT

Most used Saturday’s opportunity to promote, or lambast, food trucks. Resident Ursula Witte summed up the opinion of many when she described food trucks as a public health problem — among other things.

“I’m not against modernity, but the modernity of a food truck is something I can do without,” she said, calling them nauseating and describing them as eyesores.

Others worried food trucks would mar Alexandria’s old and historic district. Resident and former city council candidate Bob Wood argued roving restaurants put Old Town’s brick-and-mortar retailers at risk.

“This is not an immutable, unstoppable force of nature,” he said. “It’s a choice by this council to undertake a process of government micromanagement of a destructive, totally unnecessary introduction of congestion and indigestion [into the city].”

Michael Hobbs, of the Old Town Civic Association, joined Wood in warning of the upheaval food trucks would spark in the historic neighborhood, as did Val Hawkins.

“Food trucks are, in my opinion, a threat to this treasured asset of our special community,” said Hawkins, who told councilors he spoke as a city resident and not head of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. “We’re not the District, we’re not Capitol Hill, we’re not Arlington and we’re not Fairfax. And just because [food trucks] may or may not work in those localities is no justification that they’re appropriate here.”

Brick-and-mortar restaurateurs also flooded city council chambers, and though many expressed general support for food trucks, most worried about the possibility of losing customers. Count John Jarecki, owner of the Light Horse, among them.

“We are way, way oversaturated,” Jarecki said of Old Town’s restaurant scene. “There’s only one piece of the pie and that pie is getting sliced thinner and thinner and thinner. It’s OK if that slice is going to food trucks, but we need to decide: What is the happy medium?”

Food trucks did enjoy supporters, among them Nathan Macek, a member of the city’s planning commission. Though he critiqued the proposed pilot program as lacking a means by which to measure success or failure, Macek worried blocking them to shelter brick-and-mortar restaurants went too far.

“The role of government here is not to protect one class of business from competition, but to ensure the negative externalities of commerce are regulated,” said Macek, who, like Hawkins, spoke only as a resident. “In that vein, I’d say I’m a bigger fan of good government than I am of food trucks.”

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

When opponents were not targeting the roving restaurants, their sights were set on city officials.

Though city councilors agreed to tweak the ordinance early last week, officials only finished crafting a rewritten ordinance — authorizing off-street vending — Friday. The delay meant many residents did not get a chance to see the new language until the following morning. Several expressed frustration as well as annoyance at the short amount of time to digest the changes.

The poor timing followed weeks of accusations that officials were railroading the food truck ordinance through City Hall. Members of the task force directed to study the issue had not formalized their recommendations and several publicly charged City Hall with glossing over their concerns.

“I’m dismayed that we can’t seem to get this process right,” Hawkins said. “I’m sad to say that the city’s commendable effort … with respect to civic engagement has taken a severe beating and many steps backward because [of] the manner the food trucks have been handled.”

Those concerns, as well as new issues raised by critics during the weekend hearing prompted City Councilor Paul Smedberg — an admitted proponent of food trucks — to call for further delay. His effort, backed by Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg, failed.

The pair later comprised the two dissenting votes on the off-street vending ordinance. City councilors will revisit the issue as the October 2015 deadline approaches, with the expectations of making a final decision on whether to continue off-street vending only, allow curbside vending or return to the status quo.

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