Planning board opens door to food trucks
Decision now goes back to commissioners
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.