Questions remain over county food truck regulations

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 27, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

PRINCE GEORGE – The future of expanded food truck operations in Prince George County remains up in the air as supervisors await further clarity from the county planning commission on ideas related to possibly updating the county’s ordinances regulating food truck operations.

During a nearly 20-minute discussion at their monthly work session, county leaders received a report from planning department representative Tim Graves, who walked through recent discussions surrounding food trucks, which started earlier this year when the operators of the Baymont Inn and Suites at corner of Crossings and Oaklawn Boulevard submitted a request to the county to operate a food truck outside the hotel, augmenting their brick-and-mortar restaurant inside, Proud Mama’s Kitchen.

At the time of the request, the county’s planning commission had recommended approval with specific conditions but, when it was presented to the county board of supervisors, they remanded the case back to the commission for review in the context of how all food trucks operate in Prince George County.

According to current laws in the county, the closest term that could apply to food trucks in the county’s code is “prepared food and beverage vendors,” which lacks a definition of what that verbiage encompasses. Even still, licensed food trucks are only permitted to operate in zoned M-1 and M-2 locations with the property owner or agent’s written permission to operate and “sufficient area” is to be set aside for the truck’s operations, “five temporary off-street parking spaces.” If the sales are done on the same lot with an existing use, such as in the parking lot of business, “the required minimum and most accessible parking spaces for the existing use shall not be used for prepared food and beverage sales.”

The definition of what exactly a food truck is can vary slightly depending on the entity defining it, with the Virginia Department of Health, which regulates food truck operations from a consumer safety standpoint, defines them as “a food establishment that is mounted on wheels (excluding boats in the water) readily moveable from place to place at all times during operation and shall include but not be limited to pushcarts, trailers, trucks, or vans,” and “The unit, all operations, and all equipment must be integral to and be within or attached to the unit.”

Two other unnamed localities researched by the county’s planning department also have slightly different definitions, ranging from, “a food establishment that is designed to be readily moveable” to “a food establishment that is located in or upon a self-propelled vehicle licensed by the state department of motor vehicles, containing a mobile kitchen, where food and non-alcoholic beverages are stored, prepared, and served in individual portions to walk-up customers.”

 Food trucks like these are growing in popularity with consumers and entrepreneurs, helping foster a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. Now, county leaders are looking to possibly update their regulations surrounding the popular food choice.

Along with defining what a food truck is formally, the county is also looking at defining exactly where the trucks can operate, with some expressing concern over a narrow area in which trucks can operate in Prince George. Similar to their fact-finding mission when it came to the definition of a food truck, planning officials also researched other localities and their laws regulating food truck operations, finding four that allow trucks to operate beyond manufacturing-zoned areas, as seen in Prince George.

According to their research, all four unidentified communities presented allow for food truck operations on commercial- or business-zoned sites.

With that, more questions would need to be answered as the county sought to position themselves to possibly take advantage of the growing food truck industry which, according to data compiled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, continues to be a booming industry. In 2017, estimated food truck revenue in the United States was expected to rise to nearly $3 billion, up significantly from the $650 million in 2014.

From operations, such as hours, time limits, outside furniture use, to location and permitted districts, to administration, along with health and safety considerations, planning officials explained there are a wide range of topics that need to be looked at when considering drafting an ordinance for food truck operations, noting that no state law or baseline exists that communities could fall on as each locality creates their own policies on the truck’s operations.

As part of the research, Graves and county planners offered their own recommendations, which included the approval of Baymont Inn and Proud Mama’s Kitchen’s request to operate a food truck in the county on their property at the hotel, which they later unanimously accepted during a public hearing.

In addition, they requested the board’s blessing in allowing them to draft a zoning ordinance amendment that would allow for the updating and defining of “food truck” in the county’s code and continue to allow for the permit use by-right of food trucks in M-1 and M-2 districts, subject to provisions.

The regulations went on to suggest the addition of permitting by-right food truck operations in B-1 General Business District areas, subject to provisions, including property owner permission and minimum parking requirements, which currently exists in the county’s code, along with a one-year renewal permit on zoning permits, appropriate setbacks from roads, other uses, and structures, no overnight parking of units, removal of the units at the end of each day, and waste containers provided and removed daily.

With those proposals, county planning officials would hold a community meeting to garner feedback from stakeholders, including residents, businesses and food truck owners before having the planning commission review and eventually hold a public hearing on the amendment.

One of the prevailing questions during the discussion of the proposed amendments was if the distance between a truck and an existing business, namely a competing business can be regulated.

“How close to another business can they be,” asked Supervisor Alan Carmichael, who added, “For instance, if they set up two houses down from Prince George BBQ or Wendy’s to cause some issues of those businesses. This came up a couple years back with some of the burdens that the restaurant owners have to go through of paying the taxes and getting all the licenses, it is kind of taken some of their business away from them because [the food trucks] were in such close proximity to where the restaurants were located.”

“I think that was one of the downfalls last time was not being able to control it,” he continued.

Known as ‘food truck rodeos,’ local businesses and churches are among those entities that invite food truck operators to setup shop in their parking lot, offering unique opportunities that benefit the truck operator and the host venue. (Flickr)

In that U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, the regulations and costs food truck operators face can be staggering, rivaling those of traditional brick-and-mortar locations.

“On the surface it may seem like a cut and dry operation: a food truck parks and starts cooking,” Forbes columnist Natalie Sportelli remarked. “But food truck owners have to deal with obtaining pricey permits, truck maintenance and insurance, finding public or private parking spaces, storage spaces, prep kitchens, employee licenses, staff salaries, ingredient costs, and more. To open your window will take months and can cost upwards of $125,000.”

In addition, the Chamber reported that “numerous respondents” to their national food truck survey reported “regulatory barriers for trucks often exceed those of brick-and-mortar dining establishments.”

According to Assistant County Attorney Susan Erard, “the zoning ordinance could regulate proximity to any existing business and, just like any other business locally, the county would enforce the business license and meals taxes. The health department regulates how often it is monitored and they are pretty aggressive with food trucks.”

For Vice Chairman Floyd Brown, Jr., he expressed concern over the appearance of too many restrictions being put in place regarding food trucks that could stifle economic growth for food truck operators wishing to do business in the county.

“We talk about that they can’t set up without permission of the landowner so, if you start looking at the truck not being this close to a business … I am just trying to make sure if we are going to tout Prince George as being a place we want people to do business and right now, we put so many restrictions to where people who live here in the county go outside of it to make a living, we are talking out of both sides of our mouth,” he remarked.

“We are saying we want to promote business then we turn around on the other end and make it so restrictive for our own residents that are trying to be in that profession,” Brown continued.

This month’s work session was purely informational for supervisors, with county leaders agreeing to have their thoughts and opinions relayed back to the planning commission as they continue to draft language surrounding food truck operations.

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