City Council to Staff: Research Food Truck Success Factors to Shape New Policy

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Planning Director Reed Nester identified several areas where food trucks could be successful but said more research is necessary. (City of Williamsburg)
Planning Director Reed Nester identified several areas where food trucks could be successful but said more research is necessary. (City of Williamsburg)

Williamsburg’s City Council publicly discussed allowing food trucks on its streets for the first time since its August decision to list the development of a new policy as a priority.

Council members reaffirmed their interest in allowing food trucks beyond special events at Monday’s work session and asked city staff to gather data points, including a comparative analysis of localities that have their own food truck policies, to help ensure the city crafts a policy that will be successful.

“My goal here is, if we’re going to do this, I want it to be a success,” said Councilman Scott Foster, who made the initial suggestion to make food trucks a priority for the city at the August retreat. “… I want to frame [this process] as, how do we make this a success?”

Though no decisions regarding an ordinance were made, council members had the opportunity to clarify their expectations as city staff continues its research on the food truck industry and shapes a new policy, which would be subject to City Council approval.

Currently, food trucks are not allowed to operate in the city, except in the case of special events or farmers markets. James City County does not allow food trucks, while York County is close to adopting a policy that would allow private properties to host food trucks with administrative approval.

Councilwoman Judy Knudson urged city staff to talk with the Health Department to make sure it can handle the inspections of an influx of food trucks as localities become friendlier to mobile vending services.

“I would like somebody in the Health Department to say, ‘Yes, we can, in fact, handle that,’” Knudson said.

Councilman Doug Pons pushed for city staff to dig into what types of environments tend to breed a successful food truck industry for the vendors, customers and locality.

“What is the success factor in other communities? What are the population bases that are required? What is the transient workforce that needs to be in place for these to be successful? There’s a lot of data I’d like to have to go along with answering these questions,” Pons said.

Council’s discussion came after a presentation from City Planning Director Reed Nester, who laid out the general talking points surrounding food truck policies – food trucks increase variety for consumers, offer lower-cost food and enhance street life, but could create unfair competition with existing restaurants, increase litter and clash with the character of the city.

Reed, who said a new ordinance would likely not be drafted until after budget season, identified three areas of the city – Midtown, Downtown and the Northeast Triangle – where it would make sense to allow food trucks, but made clear those areas are currently loose suggestions as the city continues its research.

He also outlined some general questions to consider to better focus the new policy: Should they be located on public streets or private property? Would any food truck vendor be allowed to operate within the city or only vendors who also own a Williamsburg restaurant?

While Reed’s presentation touched on both food trucks and vending carts, City Council made clear the policy should be on food trucks only.

Reed asked council for directions on where food trucks should be allowed, but council did not provide specifics, instead requesting more data and research to be able to give better direction to staff.

While council members were in agreement the public needed to be involved in this process, it is currently unclear when that would occur. Council members did not object to Vice Mayor Paul Freiling’s suggestion to host a community meeting once the city has more data but before a proposed ordinance is drafted and considered by the Planning Commission and City Council.

“Do [food trucks] fit in the city’s character today or what some people think is the city’s character today? Or do they fit in with where we want the city to be in 10, 15 years?” asked Freiling, echoing a question both council and city staff have agreed needs to be addressed as the city shapes a new food trucks policy. “I think we need to get the citizens’ input to effectively get that answer.”

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