D.C.

Food Friday: What law governs food trucks, anyway?

An op-ed in this week's Washington Blade by local small-business advocate Mark Lee brought up an interesting point about the current conflict surrounding food trucks and the D.C. Department of Regulatory Affairs' newly proposed regulations regarding their business.

Add to the mix a startling misstep by DCRA in ignoring a 2009 D.C. law requiring that vendors operate from designated street locations assigned for use renders the agency’s proposed rulemaking legislatively defective.

This is the first I've heard about this law, despite reading lots of articles about the complications of the fuzzy, outdated regulations faced by D.C. food trucks. But it's the first thing Betsy Allman, policy adviser for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, pointed to when I spoke to her.

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The statute, from the Vending Regulation Act of 2009, specifies "that the mayor, through his agencies, would designate spots [in which food trucks could operate], and that's not what's happening," Allman said. "The regulations as proposed essentially support the status quo, leaving any legal parking space as a potential vending spot regardless of where it is. We do not support that by any means."

RAMW recently kicked off an initiative called Fair Streets DC to ensure food trucks will "become part of the business community in a responsible and fair way."

Che Ruddell-Tabisola, the just-named executive director of the DC Food Truck Association, said food trucks have been operating under what many call the "ice cream truck rule," which is more than 30 years old. It states that trucks need to be hailed by customers and can only remain parked in a space if a line has formed. If no one's waiting to be fed, the trucks have to move on. This is my understanding of the rules, thanks to various news reports. It's also the DCRA's understanding, according to its website.

Late last year, D.C.'s Department of Public Works began issuing tickets to food trucks for violations of this rule.

New regulations for food trucks, which were announced by Mayor Vince Gray on Jan. 20, proposed "vending development zones," which would allow neighborhoods to decide how many mobile and sidewalk vendors to allow in their area. DCFTA alleges that these zones could be manipulated by special interest groups to implement "food truck-free zones."

But isn't all of this moot when considering the 2009 statute? Shouldn't the D.C. government already have implemented the designation of specific spaces in which food trucks should park?

"That’s why there’s such a need to update the regulations," Ruddell-Tabisola, who also co-owns the BBQ Bus, said when I asked him about the Vending Regulations Act.

"'The Food Truck Free Zone' is a term that they've developed," Allman said. "I don't know anything about that. Or what that might entail as they conceptualize it."

Despite the confusion over this law, food trucks and restaurants do have one overlapping goal — to write the new regulations more clearly.

"The goals are very worthy on paper, but it’s very unclear how they're implemented and what the process is," Ruddell-Tabisola said.

Overall, though, DCFTA supports any update to the rules, while RAMW thinks they need an overhaul before approval by the D.C. Council.

"The use of public space should be in the interest of everyone," Allman said. "We should be able to work together, but we haven't been able to. It's a difficult situation."

After the jump: Only two mentions of Valentine's Day; I promise!

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