Portland officials are trying to find ways to improve the city’s food truck ordinance and procedural rules, and they’ve asked food truck owners for their input before any actual proposals are sent to the city council.

In a letter to all the interested parties, city manager Mark Rees cited  the  concerns highlighted in the Portland Press Herald’s May 8 Food & Dining  section (in which food truck operators expressed frustration with some of the rules and regulations that made it more difficult for them to operate in the city), along with direct feedback from truck owners and the public.

Among the options being considered are rule changes that would allow clustering of food trucks in the city, and an end to a controversial fee the trucks were being asked to pay when they park on private property. These proposed changes are just “a starting point for discussion,” Reese wrote.

Ever since food trucks were first allowed in Portland, they have been required to pay the city an extra $105 in fees - $30 for a building permit, and $75 for an occupancy permit – every time they park on private property, even though they’ve already paid for a lease agreement with the property owner. (That’s in addition to their $500 food truck license, $110 inspection fee and $200 for night vending.)

Operators grumbled that the fee was unexpected and unfair, and made it difficult to move to a new spot if there wasn’t enough foot traffic in a particular place.

In a memo accompanying Rees’ letter, one of the city’s staff attorneys  noted that the $105 fee was “intended to cover the cost of city staff confirming that a proposed location on private property is permissible under zoning and that the food truck complies with clustering and other rules…”

This fee could potentially be waived, she wrote,  if a truck “verifies its compliance with all applicable rules” by submitting, for example, a certified statement and map.

The ban on clustering has become an issue in part because it appears to apply to private as well as public property. A few Portland food trucks ignore the rule once a month, coming together during First Friday art walks at the “Flea for All” lot on Kennebec  St.  It’s proved to be a popular event, attracting art walkers who like to chow down on a taco or burger while they stroll around downtown. In the early days, especially, of this gathering, the trucks often ran out of food.

“If there is a desire to permit some measure of clustering, the question will then become whether food trucks would be permitted to cluster on both private and public property and whether clustering should be limited to certain zones or not,” the city attorney wrote. “Because of the impact that groups of food trucks operating on city streets may have on parking availability, there may be reasons to maintain the clustering prohibition with respect to public property.”

Parking rules are apparently also up for reconsideration. Food trucks are largely limited to two hours in city parking spots (especially on the peninsula), which doesn’t give them much time to set up, sell food and break things down again before they have to move.

Some potential solutions for this problem, such as instituting a $15-a-day permit allowing trucks to park in one spot all day, were already considered and rejected by the food truck task force last year.

Under current regulations, food trucks can’t be more than 20-feet long because that’s the size of the  city’s metered spaces. This has been an issue because most food trucks are 24 or 26 feet long. (In Portland,  the popular trucks Small Axe and Mainely Burgers don’t meet the size limit. They have to serve lunch from the same private parking lot on Congress Street every day.)

The city could allow trucks longer than 20 feet if they only park in non-metered parking, or they could do away with the 20-foot restriction altogether – but in that case, trucks would be expected not to take up more than one metered parking spot.

Karl and Sarah Sutton, owners of the Bite into Maine lobster truck, weighed in on these and other food truck issues in a letter they sent to Rees earlier this week. Most of these suggestions for changes reflect their own wishes and observations:

-        -   No restrictions on clustering on public or private property.

-        -  An expansion of the permitted areas that could include food trucks, specifically Compass Park.

-        -  Elimination of the building and occupancy permits.

-        -  Inclusion of food truck owners in discussions of matters that apply to the ordinances.

-        -  Expansion of the areas where food trucks are permitted to operate, for example the Western Promenade and streets downtown that are not closed off when cruise ships are in town.

-         - Allow food trucks to park on the streets starting at 6 p.m. when meters expire, as long as they remain the required distance away from brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchens.

“This could allow for food trucks to actually provide a dinner service in the city where foot traffic is a possibility,” the Suttons wrote. “We miss out on great opportunities like First Friday Artwalk as a result.”

-       -   Investigate additional city property that could be leased to a number of food trucks to create and promote a food truck area of the city, for example open air parking lots, open lots, etc. 

“We really urge the city to focus on finding a designated area of Portland where food trucks can operate daily and consistently, and could be managed by the city in some faction,” they wrote. “It could be a spot that food trucks, the city and other restaurants could be happy about.’

About the Author

Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.

Meredith can be contacted at 791-6332 or mgoad@pressherald.com
On Twitter: @meredithgoad

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