Plan­ning board opens door to food trucks

De­ci­sion now goes back to com­mis­sion­ers

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com

A large part of the scope of the com­pre­hen­sive plan the Charles County Plan­ning Com­mis­sion ap­proved ear­lier this year was the pro­mo­tion of small busi­ness and en­trepreneur­ship for cit­i­zens.

The county may have a new form of that on the hori­zon after the plan­ning com­mis­sion voted fa­vor­ably to move a tweaked ver­sion of the zon­ing text amend­ment with food truck reg­u­la­tions to the Charles County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers with a 5-2 vote on Mon­day night.

Among the changes made to the amend­ment were reg­u­la­tions stretch­ing the food trucks’ op­er­at­ing hours from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., spec­i­fy­ing the need of a nearby re­stroom for staff and truck man­agers and re­quir­ing the trucks be no more than 8.5 feet wide while trav­el­ing on the road.

Plan­ning Com­mis­sion­ers Wayne Ma­goon and Robin Barnes were the votes of dis­sent. Both had is­sues with the free range of lo­ca­tions food trucks could ap­ply for to op­er­ate in.

Both Barnes and Ma­goon were in fa­vor of cre­at­ing a spe­cific zone or lo­ca­tion for food trucks to gather and op­er­ate rather than al­low­ing them to get site plan ap­proval from prop­erty own­ers to op­er­ate on their spe­cific prop­er­ties. This en­ables them to op­er­ate with­out com­pet­ing with “brick and mor­tar” restau­rants, Ma­goon said.

“It’s not the same as be­ing in [Wash­ing­ton,] D.C. It’s not the same as park­ing on the side of the road where you have foot traf­fic,” Ma­goon said. “This has to be a des­ti­na­tion. You re­ally want to have to go there. To put it in front of a brick and mor­tar, I see real con­flict there.”

Ma­goon called hav­ing food trucks “re­verse eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment” with restau­rant own­ers he spoke with specif­i­cally say­ing they would close their shops and open food trucks in­stead.

But Plan­ning Com­mis­sioner An­gela Sher­ard said that “is their pre­rog­a­tive.” Clos­ing a brick and mor­tar build­ing in place of a food truck is not nec­es­sary, she said, and there re­ally would not be any com­pe­ti­tion.

Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schertler dou­bled down on Sher­ard’s point and said com­par­ing the two would be like “com­par­ing a taxi cab to a bike share.”

“I just don’t see that hap­pen­ing,” Sher­ard said. Even in lo­cal plazas, she said, there are dif­fer­ent restau­rants all com­pet­ing with var­ied op­tions.

“There are a num­ber of restau­rants in one lo­ca­tion and they don’t have the same menus,” she said.

Schertler said if the county lim­its the area where food trucks can op­er­ate, it lim­its the area where en­trepreneurs have the op­por­tu­nity to start up their in­di­vid­ual busi­nesses.

Be­sides, she said, food trucks are “kind of the thing” right now and are a pop­u­lar method of en­trepreneur­ship. That is not some­thing the county should take away, she said.

But Barnes said the county would not be tak­ing away any­thing from the op­er­a­tors and would be bring­ing their traf­fic all into con­sol­i­dated ar­eas. And it also lev­els the play­ing field be­tween trucks and brick and mor­tar restau­rants, who pay more for their op­er­a­tions.

Sher­ard said it is not a bad thing for truck op­er­a­tors to be pay­ing less than ac­tual restau­rant own­ers. She used the com­par­i­son of a home owner and an apart­ment ren­ter, say­ing home­own­ers pay more than renters do.

Charles County Plan­ning Di­rec­tor Steve Ball said the county has ex­plored many op­tions with food trucks — but ul­ti­mately, he said, they wanted the mar­ket to dic­tate its lo­ca­tion rather than leg­is­lat­ing a spe­cific place and po­ten­tially not hav­ing busi­ness work out.

It would be dif­fi­cult to do that, Ball said, be­cause the county does not have a true walk­a­ble town cen­ter area where peo­ple can con­gre­gate and gather around for the food trucks.

Ball said the county is hop­ing to have food trucks op­er­at­ing in re­de­vel­op­ment ar­eas, but “it would take some ef­fort and in­no­va­tion” to fig­ure out good pol­icy be­hind it.

Over­all, Sher­ard said, food trucks are an­other op­por­tu­nity for the county to grow eco­nom­i­cally and po­ten­tially an­other pipe­line for new busi­ness. Brick and mor­tar restau­rant own­ers should not be af­fected by their op­er­a­tions, she said.

“If you’re blam­ing a food truck for your demise, I think you were prob­a­bly tank­ing any­way,” Sher­ard said.

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