It’s status quo on food trucks after D.C. Council’s vote

June 5, 2013

As The Post's Mike DeBonis reported today, the D.C. Council took the rare step of passing emergency legislation on Tuesday to approve the noncontroversial parts of the proposed vending regulations while granting lawmakers the authority to amend the contested rules about food trucks.

The food trucks have been saved. For now. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The food trucks have been saved. For now. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The emergency legislation was necessary because, by law, the council could only approve, reject or take no action on the proposed regulations that will guide the future of vending in the District. The emergency amendment gave lawmakers the authority to cherry-pick which parts of the regulations they wanted to approve.

Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said he hoped to find a compromise over the contentious mobile vending regulations within 30 days, although two factors may scuttle his self-imposed deadline. One, the council has only until June 22 to deal with the current set of proposed regulations; after June 22, the outstanding regulations will be deemed "disapproved" if the council has not acted, according to an official in the General Counsel's office.

Second, history is not on Orange's side. Food truck owners, business improvement district officials and executives with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington have been clashing for years over the rules without a resolution.

So what do the council's actions mean for food trucks as the city continues to hammer out the details on mobile vending? That was a major question at the Tuesday meeting, when some raised concerns that food trucks might not be authorized to work Washington's streets after the council passed only parts of the regulations.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) decided to put the issue to rest by introducing yet another piece of emergency legislation, which would allow food trucks to continue operating as usual. Wells's so-called "status quo" amendment immediately made him a hero with food trucks.

“This is a city council that supports food trucks, and multiple members of this council have expressed that. It’s kind of unfair to single anybody out, but I’ll mention Wells because he did put forward the amendment,” said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, political director for the Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington, which had been aggressively fighting against the regulations.

“The council has taken such an interest in this, and that’s why I’m really grateful for it," Ruddell-Tabisola added. "They were faced with an up-or-down vote, and they instead passed emergency legislation to allow them to do more than just that. I think that’s just great.”

The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, which has been lobbying the council to pass all the vending regulations, had a more measured response to the lawmakers' actions.

“We’re certainly pleased that the council is moving towards the passage of vending regulations. It’s long overdue,” said Andrew Kline, legislative consultant for RAMW. The D.C. government has been tasked with developing and passing the regulations since 2009, a good year before the gourmet food truck movement started to generate controversy between bricks-and-mortar restaurants and their mobile competition.

“It looks like we have a ways to go, and we’re looking forward to having a full set of regulations completed,” Kline added.

RAMW, Kline said, will need to meet with its executive committee before deciding how to approach the D.C. Council as it considers the remaining mobile vending rules.

The food truck association, however, is clear it wants to kill off a rule that would require 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk next to any parking spot in the Central Business District that’s not part of the District’s proposed “mobile roadway vending” zones. These zones would allow trucks that win a monthly lottery to vend for four continuous hours without violating meter laws.

The food truck group also wants to modify the 500-foot buffer around these specialty vending zones to open up more of downtown to food trucks that don’t win a spot via the lottery. Finally, the association wants to modify the lottery itself.

“The lottery system as proposed doesn’t make any sense,” Ruddell-Tabisola said. “We would prefer a rotation so everybody gets an opportunity to be at those really popular food truck destinations.”

If Mayor Vincent C. Gray signs the council's emergency legislation before June 22, it's not clear to some D.C. officials what regulations will govern food trucks. Will the new, partially-approved regulations supplant the old ones? Will the "ice cream truck" rule, which requires food trucks to have a line of waiting customers to vend, still be valid? Will there be any rules for mobile vendors on the books if the D.C. Council doesn't deal with the unapproved regulations before June 22?

"I don't think it's quite clear what they've done yet," said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Gray, about the D.C. Council. "They've really confused the situation."

As such, Ribeiro added, the mayor will need to review the approved regulations before deciding whether to sign them into law. "We continue to believe that the original regulations were the proper balance all the way around for all the parties involved," the spokesman said.

One other issue: Should Orange and the council try to deal with the food truck regulations during their next legislative session on June 18, the lawmakers may not have the authority they think. One regulatory official, who requested anonymity because he's not allowed to speak on the record, said emergency legislation typically gives council members the ability only to delete, not add, language.

Even if the council strikes a compromise on the contentious food truck rules, the mayor would still need to sign the legislation before June 22. There's no guarantee that Gray would sign the legislation given his support for the original regulations proposed before the council.

If the council doesn't approve mobile vending regulations before the deadline, the District would, more than likely, have to draft new rules, publish them, take public comments again and resubmit the regs to the council for approval. Some on the council don't seem to have the stomach for yet another round of vending regulations.

As Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said during yesterday's session, "This is one of the longest running movies at the council, and it’s not a very interesting movie, frankly. It really is time to get this put to bed as much as possible so we can watch some other movie.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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