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Danger zone for D.C.’s food trucks

Food trucks have revolutionized the D.C. food scene. But they have always existed in a kind of legal limbo because of the District’s failure to issue food-truck regulations. So when the city finally released proposed regulations recently, fans of the trucks were cautiously optimistic. However, while the proposal contains good news for food trucks and their customers, there is also some bad news: One of the regulations could spell doom for many of these businesses.

First, the good news. The proposed regulations improve the existing state of affairs because they officially recognize the legality of the food truck industry. This should preclude any further attempts by anti-truck groups — i.e., brick-and-mortar restaurants that do not like the competition — to ban the trucks. Another mark in the regulations’ favor is that they eliminate the current “ice cream truck” rule, which lets food trucks park only when they are flagged down and then requires that they move once all waiting customers have been served. This antiquated rule makes no sense for modern trucks, which contain grills, fryers and other equipment that must be stowed before moving.

Now, the bad news. As noted above, several groups representing the interests of brick-and-mortar restaurants — such as the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association — would still just as soon see the trucks disappear. Although the proposed regulations would not allow anti-truck groups to eliminate D.C.’s food trucks entirely, one provision would give them the power to cripple the industry — and even to put many trucks out of business.

This rule allows restaurants that oppose food trucks to apply to the city to create “vending development zones” in their neighborhoods that would make it impossible to run a profitable food truck there. For example, the rules that the restaurants propose for the zones could limit how many trucks could operate, confine the trucks to inconvenient areas and even bar trucks from selling foods offered by nearby restaurants. Indeed, Nicholas Majett, the head of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which wrote the regulations, told one restaurateur who called into WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” that he could apply to create a zone in order to remove food trucks he didn’t want to compete against.

Thus, “vending development zones” — more accurately described as “Restaurants can burden food trucks with anti-competitive and burdensome regulations zones” — are dangerous to the future of D.C.’s food trucks. That’s a big problem, but it doesn’t require that the District go back to the drawing board and spend even more time fashioning a whole new set of regulations while the trucks remain in legal limbo. Instead, officials should simply remove the provision creating the zones from the proposed regulations before they enact them. If D.C. does that, residents can be confident that their city will always be home to a thriving food truck industry.

The writers are lawyers for the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has represented food truck operators in court actions in other cities.

 
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