Jersey City, NJ – A long-awaited proposal to revise Jersey City’s law governing food truck and street carts was tabled Wednesday night by the City Council after food vendors made an impassioned plea to defend their businesses from what they saw as misguided legislation. The ordinance was tabled by a vote of 8 to 1, with Council President Peter Brennan casting the sole no vote and complaining that by tabling the measure, the council was thwarting what he described as a “year and a half of work” on the issue.
Most prominently, the proposal would have included a 60-minute limit on vendors staying in one location before having to move a quarter of a mile; kept vendors at a distance of 100 feet from each other; and restricted food trucks from operating within 300 feet of a “brick and mortar” establishment.
It would also have required a background check, and brought more oversight to the application process, in the wake of the embarrassing July 2009 arrest of health department official Joseph Castagna for allegedly issuing scores of illegal vendor licences (Castagna has since retired.)
“As of today, we don’t know who’s who out there,” Brennan said, referencing Castagna’s illegally issued licenses. He added that because of the legal limbo, the city hasn’t collected any fees on the truck and cart vending licenses in over a year.
“We let this go astray for too long. We want to bring it back under control of the city, and this [ordinance] is how we have to do it,” Brennan said. “Should we make amendments to this? I believe we can. But we have children out there and we need to protect them first.”
However, the food truck vendors in attendance — representing food ranging from taco trucks to creperies to Indian food carts to a chef who changes his cart’s menu regularly — called the ordinance’s regulations unjust and misguided in intent, and questioned the “unfair burden” of proposed background checks.
“All we’re trying to do is make a living,” said Taste of India cart owner Morris Peters.
The Taco Truck CEO Jason Scott, who first aired concerns about the proposal when it was unveiled two weeks ago, again acknowledged that some areas of the proposal were necessary, in particular the regular health inspections, which he described as “long overdue.” But overall, he said, he has been “disappointed” with much of what has been proposed.
“How will [these regulations] be enforced?” asked Scott, referring to the vendor-to-vendor spacing and time limit issues. “What if a police officer sees two trucks parked 25 feet from each other and they both say they were there first? Will someone have a stopwatch to see how long they’ve been there? Will they use GPS to measure the distance?”
Natalia Caicedo of the Lucinda truck (at right) added that the 60-minute time limit was too short.
“It takes me 20 minutes to set up and 20 minutes to close up,” she said. “It’s not possible to work this way.”
She also took issue with the restrictions on trucks’ proximity to each other, pointing out that the vendors rely on creating a critical mass of food trucks, like at Harborside’s popular mini food-truck row.
“The way we operate is that we’re next to each other, this is how we create our business,” she said. “We operate in an area where there is no foot traffic, there’s nothing there, we work and we start from zero and create a lunch [area] and [our] customers are so happy.”
Food truck vendor James Saldana took issue with the city’s plan to wean the current number of licenses, which stands at 322, down to the current cap of 175. Because of the difficulties in figuring out which extra licenses were issued illegally and which weren’t, the proposed revisions to the law would allow all 322 licenses to be renewed at the start, in order to protect the city from potential lawsuits. But the changes would limit the number of license transfers to 175, in an effort to slowly reduce the number of licenses.
“We work 12 to 15 hours a day, we’re hard working people and bust our butts day and night. If the licenses are cut down to 175, the city should buy the remaining licenses out,” Saldana said. “We’re not buying them in secret; we bought them from a city official. It’s not our fault that they weren’t given out correctly.”
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