Rolls Forward Despite Restaurants’ Concern

COLUMBIA, SC – Some local restaurants don’t want the city’s burgeoning food truck community to have what they see as an unfair advantage.

As the city moves to fix a law that could have inadvertently limited food trucks, city staffers have been hearing from some trade groups representing restaurants who want to make sure trucks don’t have free rein to park anywhere they please.

“Basically, a food truck is a very low-cost investment and doesn’t have to have the same things a brick-and-mortar restaurant has,” says Tom Sponseller, head of the South Carolina Hospitality Association, one of the groups expressing concerns. “It creates somewhat of an unlevel playing field in [restaurant owners’] minds, financially.”

But on Oct. 3, the city planning commission voted against protections for the brick-and-mortar restaurants, striking part of the revised ordinance that would have prohibited trucks from parking within 100 feet of a restaurant unless they get written permission from the restaurant owner.

The commission’s votes don’t bind City Council, which will have to vote on the final revisions; they’re merely advisory. The commission voted to approve other revisions to the law.

A few months ago, the city began hearing from food truck supporters angry about a new ordinance set to take effect next spring. Under the ordinance, passed Aug. 2, temporary vendors can only operate 10 hours out of each 24, must submit a site plan to the city for the private property on which they’ll operate, and cannot take up any parking spaces that are required by zoning laws, among other rules.

The law was designed to crack down on roadside vendors selling produce, flowers, furniture and other wares at sprawling, semi-permanent outdoor locations that some city leaders felt were a nuisance — particularly along North Main Street.

But the law also covers food trucks. And food truck operators said it would be near-impossible to submit a site plan and obtain a permit for each location they wanted to serve food from, as Scott Hall of Bone-In Artisan Barbecue on Wheels told Free Times in August.

“It would just make it so difficult for us to do business,” Hall said. “It would completely eliminate our ability to bounce around, to function like a real food truck.”

Bombarded by emails from food truck fans, City Council asked staff to fix the law.

So planning staff proposed creating a separate classification in the zoning law for food trucks.

As Krista Hampton, Columbia’s director of planning and development services, explains, food trucks aren’t quite what the original law was supposed to address.

“They are temporary vendors. But they are very-temporary temporary vendors,” Hampton said.

The revisions would allow trucks to park on private property with the owner’s written permission. They could occupy required parking spaces. They would have to apply for a general annual food truck permit, rather than location-specific permits.

On Oct. 3, the city planning commission voted unanimously in support of Hampton’s revisions — with the exception of the 100-foot protection for restaurants, which members felt exceeded their authority.

“Is that a valid zoning concern, to protect existing businesses?” asked commission member Josh Eagle. “There may be other reasons to do it, but I feel like I don’t want to be in the business of making business decisions.”

And chairman Mark James pointed out that restaurants often cluster together, with no protections against competition from each other.

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