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Nearly a dozen food truck operators crowded into a meeting room in the James City County Government Center on Thursday afternoon to address the county’s proposed ordinance for regulating mobile food vendors.
The business owners came with their families, from young children to middle-aged mothers. Some came dressed in chef’s coats, ready for the night shift, their food truck parked in the lot outside.
Each person voiced their own opinion, yet the ragtag alliance of food truck operators had one statement in common — that their businesses belong in James City County.
“Food trucks create jobs and self-sufficiency on a local level,” said M.J. Medlar, owner of Capt’n Crabby food truck. “Small businesses are the backbone of America. We shouldn’t hinder them from prospering.”
Thursday’s meeting was called by the county’s Policy Committee — a four-person subcommittee of the JCC Planning Commission — to discuss a draft ordinance which will determine how the county regulates food trucks, including health and fire inspections, consent for property use, noise level and signage, and distance from existing restaurants.
Currently food trucks are not listed as a permitted or specially permitted use in any of the county’s zoning districts and are not defined anywhere in the county’s Zoning Ordinance. But judging by Thursday’s outpouring of support, the tide is rapidly turning in favor of change.
“I’m here today in support of the food truck ordinance,” said Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, which represents more than 850 businesses in the City of Williamsburg, York and James City counties.
“The only way that we can increase our identity as a major culinary destination,” said Riordan. “Is to allow food trucks to be here and coexist peacefully and fairly with brick and mortar restaurants. We are in favor of that, despite the fact we represent many brick and mortar restaurants.”
In April, the James City County Board of Supervisors formally started the conversation on permitting food trucks in the county’s industrial parks by instructing staff to bring potential zoning amendments to the Planning Commission.
Initially, the county proposed three zoning districts for food trucks: the M-1 Limited Business/Industrial zoning, the M-2 General Industrial zoning and the PUD-C Planned Unit and Development-Commercial zoning. Now the Board of Supervisors has requested that staff also consider ordinance language which would permit food trucks on land zoned PL or Public Land.
For those in favor of keeping the zoning laws as they were, the danger lies not in how food trucks operate today, but how they could operate in the future.
“The worst part of this is it’s a slippery slope,” said Lenny Berl, co-owner of Williamsburg-based Virginia Gourmet. “Where does this start and end? You’re in a historic area. Are you gonna have colonial souvenir trucks? Are you gonna have jewelry trucks? These are the things that you really have to focus on. What does James City County want to do?”
For Medlar, the county’s prohibitive zoning ordinances have become more than a hindrance. She says they violate her constitutional right to “life, liberty and property.”
“Mobile vendors have the right to earn a living free from protectionist and anti-competitive regulation,” she said. “Making proximity and zoning restrictions between food trucks and restaurants is pretty unconstitutional and protecting businesses from competition is not a legitimate use of government power.”
James City County was the last of surrounding jurisdictions to draft a food truck policy. In January, the York County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance that allows food trucks on developed and occupied private properties. The Williamsburg City Council asked city staff last year to begin research on the potential for successful food truck operation in the city.
The current JCC draft ordinance will be revised to address public comment during the Sept. 15 Policy Committee meeting before it moves on to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors for a vote.
“I think there’s a misperception about the slowness of the process,” said Policy Committee Chairman Rich Krapf. “It’s a misperception that this has been very cumbersome. We’d rather do the research correctly up front and come up with a better ordinance than rush something through and realize that we’ve neglected to address an issue.”
Click here to read the full draft of the ordinance.