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Another helping of food truck rules

Katrina Young didn’t think she’d be talking so much about food trucks this week.

Young, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning manager, has found herself in a swirl of unexpected protest over possible new rules governing mobile food vendors in Charlotte. The protest is unexpected because the rules aren’t rules yet. “They’re just a draft,” Young told the editorial board this week.

The proposals were the product of a citizens advisory group and conversations with food truck operators. Why change the rules at all? Young says her department had long planned on revisiting food truck ordinances, and it had also received requests to do so from the public. That included the vendors themselves, who thought some of the previous rules were too restrictive.

Still, the changes are understandably worrisome, because Charlotte has a somewhat bumpy history with its food trucks. The city tightened regulations in 2008 and 2009, banning vendors from operating within 400 feet of a residential district and restricting morning and nighttime hours. The resulting ordinance, aimed primarily at taco trucks near residential neighborhoods, put dozens of operators out of business.

Now, food truck owners feel like they’re getting sauteed all over again. The new rules would prevent trucks from operating within 100 feet of a restaurant, bar or nightclub, and they seem to restrict food trucks from accepting requests to serve birthday parties and other events in neighborhoods and some office parks. That’s a big potential loss of business.

But we’re not convinced the city is trying to run food trucks off the road. Young said that planning staff is already taking another look at some changes, such as the 100-foot rule for restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Some of those businesses – such as Charlotte’s craft breweries – say they benefit form having the trucks around to sell complementary food. “We hadn’t thought about that,” Young admitted.

Young also was surprised at complaints about proposed permitting changes. One new rule allowed for food truck operators to apply for one permit for three locations in a year instead of a having to get a new permit for one location each 90 days. That seems to be an easing of red tape, but if not, Young said she wants to hear why.

She’ll get that chance Tuesday, when she meets again with food truck representatives. (That’s another good sign.) Food trucks, like any business, need to adhere to health and safety regulations, and they shouldn’t be an unnecessary burden on their surroundings. It’s unfair, for example, for a food truck to park directly in front of a competing restaurant.

But the city should be careful not to overregulate with competition in mind, and it should recognize that food trucks contribute to the city’s culinary vibrancy, as well as a small business diversity that Charlotte needs. They don’t need to be choked with restrictive new rules.

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