Portland City Council gives food trucks a green light

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PORTLAND — No longer will food trucks have to be contestants in a nationally televised reality show to ply city streets.

A unanimous City Council vote Monday night established the regulatory framework for licensing and operation of the mobile food vendors.

Although councilors voted as a unified bloc to approve the recommendations that originated with a specially created food truck task force and sent to them by their Public Safety, Health, and Human Services Committee with minor amendments, city residents who commented on the issue were divided.

Previously, food trucks were banned except during festivals, and during the filming in June of an episode of the Food Network show “The Great Food Truck Race,” when the competitors were granted special permits.

The ordinance that was passed Monday takes effect in a month and restricts the trucks to some city parks, a handful of streets around the edges of downtown, and industrial off-peninsula locations during the day. The rules also ban food trucks from operating within 65 feet of any working kitchen on the peninsula, or within 200 feet from another establishment off the peninsula.

Food trucks will be allowed to operate on private property in any non-residential section of the city during the day, but will still have to keep their distance from existing restaurants.

The vote also established a fee structure for food truck licenses: $500  for a standard license and $200 for one that allows the vendor to operate between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Since the task force created to look at the subject began meeting in early March, some critics have said that the ordinance amounts to protectionism on behalf of the city’s brick-and-mortar eating establishments, and several speakers again lobbed that charge during Monday’s meeting.

Resident Charles Bragdon called the rules “unworkable,” and a “way to make food trucks not exist.”

Bragdon said food trucks will not compete with restaurants because of limits to their own production capacity, and that the regulations “would limit my potential to operate during the times of the day that would allow me to be profitable” as a food truck operator.

“Most of the places on the map” where food trucks will be allowed – in the Bayside neighborhood, on most of the Eastern Promenade, and along parts of West Commercial, Commercial, Spring, and St. John streets, and Park Avenue – “are going to be places where there are not real people,” said Steven Scharf, a regular speaker against perceived over-regulation.

Bragdon suggested the council revisit the entire ordinance before taking action.

“We really should go back to the drawing board,” he said. “We’re potentially closing the door on one of the most potentially diverse experiences (Portland) could offer.”

But Michael Mastronardi, owner of 164 Middle St., which houses the White Cap Grille, said that while he supports food trucks, the ordinance before councilors threatened the restaurant culture that supports Portland’s food-centric reputation. He said those establishments pay significant taxes and hire year-round staff, and are already at risk because of the general economy.

Mastronardi said “food trucks should compete with food trucks,” and suggested tabling the ordinance in order to create a more level playing field, one in which food trucks would not be allowed in the heart of the city: “Not Cumberland, Spring, Middle, not parks, not private property.”

Doug Fuss, the owner of Bull Feeney’s owner and president of the Portland Downtown District, who also served on the task force, said that the licensing fees are too low and should be increased to offset the cost of health inspections and to make the fees “palatable” to other food establishments.

But councilors said the ordinance makes concessions to both sides.

“This is a careful balance,” said Councilor Ed Suslovic, who spearheaded the Public Safety Committee’s effort to push the task force’s recommendations to the council. The fee structure is fair, given the restrictive operating area for food trucks, he said, while forcing food trucks to follow posted parking regulations will push them toward setting up on private property.

“I don’t think there should be much fear,” Councilor David Marshall said. “There might be a few (food trucks) that are able to pull this off. There’s not a lot of territory that’s available to be utilized that has a pre-existing clientele.”

“I feel as though this is a great place to start,” he said.

Monday’s meeting may not be the last time the council is called upon to address the issue: Suslovic said that given the strict nature of the initial rules, he would not be surprised to see councilors voting on amendments to open more of the city to food trucks a year from now.

 Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.