December 09, 2021

FOOD TRUCK ORDINANCE FAILS

Proposed regulations on food trucks sent to the chopping block

The food truck ordinance proposed by city staff — which would have regulated operations, required inspections and maintained fire safety standards, among other things — failed to pass its first reading Nov. 15 after a prolonged discussion with council members and testimonials from local business owners.

Newton City Council ultimately could not come to a consensus on the subject. Some argued against specific details in the ordinance, such as the proximity between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants and getting permission from adjacent property owners. Others felt fire safety inspections were needed.

Three citizens spoke about the proposed ordinance, saying the amount of food trucks operating within Newton brings vibrancy to the city and to places like Legacy Plaza and the downtown district. They also worried regulations might actually discourage food trucks from operating in town on a regular basis.

Legacy Plaza regularly hosts food trucks outside Gezellig Brewing Co. and other small businesses in its campus. Kim Didier, executive director of DMACC Business Resources and project manager of Legacy Plaza, asked council members to think about the impact and implementation of the ordinance.

Didier said she recently spoke to the owners of Off The Griddle — a food truck from St. Charles that also operated during the Jasper County Fair — who also has a party bus business that they finished at 1:30 a.m. Sunday before driving to Newton at 10:30 a.m. to open the food truck.

“These are small business owners, and I would ask that you propose to look at this, look at what possible barriers we might be creating if we went ahead and adopted it,” Didier said. “Are they enough barriers to then tip to the decision for a small business owner to say, ‘It’s not worth coming to Newton.’”

About 44 different food trucks have visited Legacy Plaza within the past two-and-a-half years, Didier added. Of those she included in a list submitted to council, none were from Jasper County. Combined with mileage and a possible licensing fee, Didier wondered if operators would opt not to do business in Newton.

However, Didier did appreciate staff’s flexible wording in the ordinance, especially when it comes to the Newton Fire Department accepting other fire station’s inspections of the food trucks operating in the city. Didier said most of trucks coming in are from areas where they’ve already done inspections.

“As we consider this, let’s take those things into consideration and not create over-regulation that then creates for that small business owner a negative cost-benefit analysis to just say, ‘It’s not worth driving to Newton,’” Didier said. “I would ask you take that kind of view as you look at the ordinance.”

SMALL BUSINESS OWNERS GIVE FEEDBACK

Food trucks are a “lifeline” to several Legacy Plaza tenants, Didier said. As more tenants are recruited, Didier finds many of them asking if any food options are on campus. The food trucks have provided tenants that kind of service. Didier hopes enough tenant activity will justify food trucks setting up around the lunch hour.

The trucks are also beneficial to downtown Newton. Julia Prendergast, owner of Fine Things Reclaimed and vice-president of Destination Downtown Newton Alliance, echoed similar sentiments to Didier. Food trucks are “vibrant” and attract business to “every part of Newton.”

“So for us to put a bunch of barriers up, (it’s) probably not what we want to do,” Prendergast said. “A couple of the concerns I have are food trucks versus restaurants. I know that’s been a big topic. But we’ve done a lot of research on that. Right now, Newton has very limited food choices for restaurants.”

By bringing in food trucks, Prendergast continued, the city is afforded a variety of food options. But it shouldn’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the ordinance.

“Let’s make it easy. Let’s not make it difficult,” she said. “The fees I definitely agree you need to take a hard look at those. Altoona? They don’t have these. They don’t even have an ordinance to deal with food trucks, but they have them all the time … We need to make sure this ordinance works for Newton.”

Prendergast criticized the signage portion of the ordinance, which would only be allowed on the truck itself or within the premises of a city-approved event.

“We’re Newton, Iowa. Let’s make it easy. Let’s make it grow. Let’s do it the right way for all of the small businesses,” Prendergast said.

Marty Duffy, owner of The Cellar Peanut Pub, said he and his wife Betsy Duffy, who owns Gezellig Brewing Co. alongside Mindi Vanden Bosch, are two of the business owners who would be affected by the food truck ordinance. Duffy also owns another Peanut Pub in Pella, which does not benefit from food trucks.

“The regulations in Pella are too steep,” Duffy said. “Food trucks won’t come to my establishment in Pella. Being it’s a brewery and beer bar, we are a destination. To get food into these folks is a big, big thing. It’s also an attraction … We get a wide variety of different food trucks.”

Duffy later clarified he did not know the exact specifications of Pella’s ordinances. But he also recalled an instance where he wanted to have a grilled cheese sandwich food truck outside the pub but was told the owners had to put Dutch decor on the side of the vehicle.

“That didn’t work out,” Duffy said. “…I’ve tried several times to get food trucks in Pella. It just didn’t work out. They didn’t want to go through all the hoops. They’re small businesses like Kim said. They’re trying to make a buck. We all are right now.”

BACKGROUND OF FOOD TRUCK ORDINANCE

Two weeks before the food truck ordinance was considered for approval, city staff told council members the code was drafted and ready for consideration. The City of Newton’s planning and zoning commission discussed the prospects of this type of ordinance as early as March. Staff later ran the idea by council in May.

Back then council members raised concerns about the proximity of food trucks to brick-and-mortar restaurants, arguing the latter are at a disadvantage. Others were worried about fire safety. The ordinance proposed this week by the city addressed several of those concerns from council members.

According to city documents, the ordinance specifically required an application submitted no less than 10 days before operations. The application would include contact info, a plot plan, duration of service and vehicle information. Food trucks would also have needed an inspection by the Newton Fire Department.

In addition, the operators of food trucks:

• Cannot impede access to and from ADA parking stalls.

• Cannot be located on residential property, unless part of a city-approved event.

• Cannot be located on city property or right-of-ways, unless part of a city-approved event.

• Must maintain minimum parking requirements for the host site and food truck.

• Cannot serve in the same location for three consecutive days.

• Cannot obstruct city right-of-ways, including where the customer queue would be.

• Cannot use free-standing or off-premise signs.

• Cannot discharge anything into sanitary or storm sewer.

• Must meet National Fire Protection Association guidelines and Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals requirements.

• Must be 200 feet away from brick-and-mortar restaurant, unless written permission is received.

The ordinance presented to council did not specify an application or license fee, but staff argued such practices are considered normal. Regardless, the council would have to be presented a separate resolution to instill any associated fees attached to the ordinance. The city suggested an annual $100 license fee.

It’s not the highest fee, but it’s also not the lowest.

Erin Chambers, director of community development for the City of Newton, said the ordinance was created from reviewing 10 different community ordinances. But the code eventually presented to the Newton City Council was modeled after the food truck ordinances in Clive and Pleasant Hill, she said.

CITY ADDRESSES FEEDBACK, SAFETY INSPECTIONS

Addressing the public comment by Prendergast, Chambers said the ordinance, as proposed, aligns with the city’s current ordinances for signage. City code details a number of prohibited signs, which include off-premise signage and snipe signage. The food truck ordinance bookends those existing rules.

If the council did want to address sign issues in the food truck ordinance, it would have to amend its city code, Chambers said. On the issue of an application fee, Chambers reminded council they are not approving the fee, which would be presented separately as a resolution.

Chambers also reiterated the frequency of public notices regarding a proposed food truck ordinance. City of Newton created a webpage www.newtongov.org/foodtruckinfo to give citizens more information about the ordinance. Notices were printed in the newspaper and were sent to citizens via email.

“There’s been lots of opportunities to try and reach out and answer questions or hear from people and incorporate thoughts and ideas when possible,” Chambers said. “…I think goal from planning and zoning commission’s standpoint was to be consistent with other Central Iowa communities while being maybe on the easier side of things.”

Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik said he doesn’t have a problem with accepting other fire department’s inspections of the food trucks. However, the chief would still require some kind of documentation saying what was checked on the truck and make sure it aligns with Newton’s inspections.

“Specifically, what we’re looking to do is making sure the vehicle is safe so that the equipment in it isn’t going to hurt anybody or catch fire and not affect any of our buildings. That’s the goal of the fire inspection,” Wellik said, noting he would decide through other fire station’s reports if he still wants to inspect the unit.

If no documentation is given to the fire department from the food truck operators, then it would likely require the chief to conduct the inspection prior to service.

Council member Randy Ervin asked if the fire station would be inspecting the food trucks more than once a year. Wellik said the fire department would like to do the inspections annually. The fire station is also not charging food truck operators for the inspection. Spot checks would also be conducted, too.

“Right now, if somebody came to town and had a food truck that was unsafe or we had a complaint about it and we wanted to do something, what do we have in place that we can manage it?” Wellik asked. “So that’s something to consider as well.”

CITY COUNCIL DEBATES HYPOTHETICALS

Although it may seem like the council was “picking on” city staff, Ervin reminded everyone that the elected officials asked community development to come up with a food truck ordinance by the end of the year. Staff did just that. Ervin said in the past few weeks he’s had many people reach out to him about the subject.

“You guys did a great job of putting together something,” Ervin said. “Don’t feel like we may pick on you when we ask you redo some things, OK?”

Chambers replied, “Absolutely not. That’s why we have public meetings.”

About 30 minutes in to the discussion, Newton Mayor Mike Hansen reminded council members of their options: they could continue to deliberate or call for questions, make a motion to suspend/postpone the ordinance until additional information is gathered or put the matter to a vote.

Council member Evelyn George said it is important for the city to have an ordinance in place, noting restaurants in town need to have fire safety inspections as well. George also noted it’s not just the food trucks visiting Newton, it’s the ones that are also located in town.

George also suggested the city can have a food truck ordinance without a fee. Council member Craig Trotter took issue with the minimum distance a food truck must be from a brick-and-mortar and the expressed permission from nearby restaurant owners. Trotter recommended the council strike that language.

Although Trotter would later put the amendment to a vote, it would not receive enough votes from council to pass. Still, Trotter argued why a food truck would need the OK from nearby restaurants if they already have the permission from a property owner to set up shop temporarily.

If the ordinance passed, Trotter claimed no food truck would be able to serve from the county lot next door to Viet-Thai Taste since it would not meet the 200 feet requirement. Note: throughout the meeting, council often used Dan’s Sandwich Shop/Maid-Rite as a placeholder example for their hypotheticals.

“If I own that lot and I want to put a food truck in there, I now have to go to Dan and say, ‘Hey, can I put a food truck in there?’ Why, as a property owner, would I have to ask for permission? Because if I want to put a business in there or a restaurant, I don’t have to go to Dan and say, ‘Hey can I open this?’” Trotter said.

Council member Dean Stonner said the brick-and-mortar restaurant is at a disadvantage to the food truck, through Trotter disagreed. Stonner persisted, saying those restaurant owners made an investment in the community. Trotter said the food truck owners are still making an investment.

“It’s not near the investment,” Stonner said. “…I love the fact that we’re getting these, but in that same token I don’t want to disadvantage those people that own a brick-and-mortar restaurant.”

George said getting a restaurant owner’s permission is good for neighbor relations. Trotter affirmed most food trucks will not open next door to another restaurant. Stonner agreed and said it mainly happens in “funky” areas like Legacy Plaza.

As long as the fire inspections can be accepted from other cities and the fee is a separate decision to be made later, George said what has been proposed by city staff has been reasonable. Ervin disagreed, saying the ordinance is very limiting. Trotter again questioned why certain details were in it at all.

“Why are we making the city do way more than it needs to do?” Trotter said. “Get the inspections. Make sure it’s safe. The city should be out of it. Out.”

The ordinance failed in a 3-3 vote.

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.