Charlottesville officials are seeking ways to amend the city’s code to support a new trend in casual dining.
“Mobile food units are popping up in localities all over the country,” said Read Brodhead, the city’s zoning administrator. “Austin[, Texas,] has over a thousand mobile food trucks. D.C. has over 200. We have about six.”
However, technically speaking, they are not allowed under the city’s zoning code.
On Tuesday, Brodhead presented the city Planning Commission with proposed changes to the zoning code to allow food trucks to operate on private property within city limits.
Brodhead said many communities have chosen to use the zoning code to prevent food trucks from operating. He said Charlottesville wants to take a different approach.
“There is no desire to over-regulate,” Brodhead said. “The main purpose is to create an ordinance to make it legal and welcome these uses in the city.”
Under the regulations Brodhead proposed, applicants would have to be certified by the health department and demonstrate they have permission from a private property owner. Applicants could operate in up to 10 locations per permit.
Brodhead suggested that trucks not be allowed to provide any seating for diners, and that they would have to provide at least one trash receptacle. Trucks also would only be allowed in places with enough parking. The permits would be annual, giving the zoning staff a chance to reconsider issuing a new one if problems arise.
Commissioner Lisa Green wanted to know more information about how a permit could be granted to an operation that moves throughout the city.
“When we do special-use permits, they go with the land,” Green said. “Does the landowner get the provisional permit? I’m not sure how this would work logistically.”
Brodhead said the process would be similar to the provisional-use permits that allow for home occupations.
“Enforcement might be difficult,” Brodhead said. “I hope it is easy. We want to create a simple one-page document to make it as easy as possible.”
Other commissioners pointed out other concerns.
Would food trucks be able to operate 24 hours a day?
“A brick and mortar restaurant doesn’t have any regulations on the hours in which they can operate,” Brodhead said.
What if a mobile food truck never moved?
“There are restrictions in the health department permits that after a certain amount of hours they have to return to their commissary and flush the water and restock,” Brodhead said.
After Brodhead said he had not been in touch with restaurant owners, City Councilor Dede Smith encouraged him to do so.
“It might be interesting to get their feedback,” Smith said.
The idea had the support of the five planning commissioners present, but all felt more work is needed.
“This is something that is much needed and really consistent with Charlottesville as the locavore capital of the world,” said Commissioner Natasha Sienitsky. “I’d like to see this ordinance allow for some seating.”
“I very much would like to do anything I can to promote a vital food cart culture,” said Commissioner Michael Osteen. He added that he would also support some seating at food carts.
Genevieve Keller, chairwoman of the commission, said she would favor involvement from property owners.
“[What if] there’s an overflow of trash, the truck drives away, and there’s a lot of trash there?” Keller asked.
Green, a supporter of food trucks in general, said she was not inclined to allow seating because that could compete with downtown merchants.
“I don’t want to take away from that,” Green said. She also wanted to make sure trucks did not block sidewalks or bike lanes.
However, commissioners said the proposed ordinance change was not ready in part because more scrutiny of the relationship between food trucks and private property is needed.
“To the degree that it is anchored to the land is pretty important,” said David Neuman, the architect for the University of Virginia. “When there are more than one of them in one spot, there’s more opportunity for some related effects in terms of trash and the like, and the need for seating.”
Deputy City Attorney Rich Harris said he also had several issues with the ordinance as suggested.
“It looks like there’s going to be a lot of rewrites in the draft that will come back before you,” Harris said.
A rewritten ordinance will come back to the Planning Commission later this year for a second public hearing.