Council seeks to strike balance on food truck laws

The debate about the future of food trucks in the city will continue for another few weeks at least.

City Council President Stacy Head had said she wanted to vote this month on new legislation to govern the growing industry. That will not happen, though, since she plans to rework the laws in an effort to appease both opponents and critics.

Some concessions include increasing the boundaries of the area where food trucks would be prohibited in the Central Business and Warehouse districts and increasing the distance between where trucks are allowed to park in relation to restaurants.

Head presented her modified ideas during a Tuesday meeting of the council’s Economic Development Committee

The main concerns among some council members and the Louisiana Restaurant Association include food safety and health issues and whether the changes would negatively affect existing restaurants.

Andrew Legrand, an attorney representing the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, said food trucks and restaurants are in a “David vs. Goliath” fight and that the LRA has used a “fear-based campaign” to stop passage of new laws.

“I don’t believe this is a David and Goliath issue, and I don’t think we should make it one,” said Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who added that she wants to work to make the changes a reality.

The restaurant industry said it’s not actually opposed to the changes.

Paul Rotner, president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s New Orleans chapter, said he and his colleagues do not oppose food trucks in theory and that the two types of businesses can “coexist.”

He pointed out, though, that trucks have unfair advantages since they pay less property taxes and that the trucks face more lenient sanitation standards. Legrand and Rachel Billow, president of the Food Truck Coalition, disputed that claim.

A representative from the state Department of Health and Hospitals was not able to attend Tuesday’s meeting to address that aspect, Council President Jackie Clarkson said.

Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the city’s health commissioner, said she is working with the state to update sanitation laws. The innovation of the food truck industry is outpacing updates to health codes, she told the council committee.

One of the largest concerns about Head’s new laws involved the distance that food trucks must park from restaurants.

Right now they are allowed no closer than 600 feet from a brick-and-mortar business. An ordinance she recently introduced slashed that distance to 50 feet. Head said she would consider increasing the distance up to 100 feet.

Allowing the trucks to compete with existing restaurants is fair, Head said.

The proposed ordinance would prevent food trucks from operating in front of any residence. But Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said she thinks that areas that lack business such as restaurants, such as eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward, would benefit from having the trucks in their neighborhoods.

Other changes in Head’s legislation is the number of permits available for food trucks or any mobile food vendor, such as Lucky Dog cars. Right now there is a cap of 100 permits, with 59 of those permits held by food trucks. She would like to allow 200 permits in the city.

The cost of a permit also would change under the proposed laws. She wants to make the initial fee $805 and an annual renewal $755. Under existing law, a permit initially costs $305 and is $250 to renew.

Another change would allow food trucks to set up in once place for up to four hours. Right now they have to move every 45 minutes.

The existing law prohibits food trucks from operating in the French Quarter and Central Business District, with boundaries of the river, Claiborne Avenue, Esplanade Avenue and Howard Avenue. Head introduced an ordinance during the last council meeting that would have shrunk the boundary to the middle of Rampart Street, rather than Claiborne Avenue, and from Esplanade Avenue to Poydras Street.

Head said Tuesday she was willing to again increase the prohibition area to Howard Avenue in an effort to please “vocal” opponents.

Head has said food-truck legislation needs to be updated since it was written more than 50 years ago and hasn’t been properly updated since. She has worked in recent months to write new laws that, she said, would be more suited toward the growing number of food trucks in the city.