N.O. City Council approves new food-truck laws

After months of discussion, the New Orleans City Council voted Thursday to approve a new set of laws that govern food trucks and a yearlong pilot program that will allow more of them to operate in the city.

The council voted 6-1 to approve the ordinance after going back and forth for nearly two hours about amending amendments during the drawn-out and, at times, confusing debate. District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell was the lone dissenter.

The discussion centered on a half-dozen amendments to Council President Stacy Head’s proposed ordinance that would loosen existing food-truck laws and increase the number of permits by 75.

Head has said the 50-year-old laws that regulate food trucks need to be updated since the industry has changed post-Katrina.

While Head submitted two of the amendments, Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson added four more, something Head said was done late Wednesday night, leaving little time for review.

Clarkson’s amendments largely focused on access to rest rooms and the distance from which food trucks can park from brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Ultimately the council changed all but two of the amendments.

One of Head’s amendments, which the council unanimously approved, said that any food-truck operator “must be able to demonstrate authorized access to a rest room within a reasonable distance” of that truck’s location.

Head said that amendment was in response to concerns from the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and she submitted it even though she thought it was “silly” since other vendors do not have to be located near rest rooms.

Ultimately, though, Head’s amendment, while approved, was superseded by one of Clarkson’s amendments.

That change requires a food-truck operator to be located within 300 feet of a public or private rest room and have proof that customers can use those facilities, unless that operator can prove that there is no rest room within 300 feet of where the truck will park.

Additionally, there is no need to worry about rest room locations if the truck will be parked at one location fewer than two hours.

That amendment passed 5-2, with Head and District E Councilman James Gray voting against it.

Head’s and Gray’s concerns about putting too many restrictions on the trucks during the pilot period were echoed by those who run food trucks.

“If we have restrictions in place, we’re not going to learn whether they’re doing to be a problem,” said Rachel Billow, the operator of La Cochinita and president of the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition. “The best solution would be to wait until it becomes a problem.”

Taceaux Loceaux operator Alex del Castillo agreed and said he was not sure why there needed to be a rest-room requirement. He noted that he had “managed not to soil myself” while working in his truck.

“Why is it suddenly important now?” he said. “What are you fixing?”

The distance that trucks must part from restaurants has been a major point of contention among the council, food-truck operators and restaurateurs during the months-long process to get the proposed food-truck legislation to the council for a vote.

Previous incarnations of the ordinance Head introduced would have allowed food trucks to park as close as 50 feet to restaurants. Right now, city law prohibits a food truck from parking 600 feet from a business.

One of Clarkson’s amendments would have set that distance at 300 feet, unless a restaurant operator gives written permission for the park to truck in front of his or her business. District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell suggested reducing that distance to 200 feet.

Clarkson, Hedge-Morrell and District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer voted against Cantrell’s amendment to Head’s initial amendment.

Ultimately, the 200-foot buffer passed 6-1, with Gray voting against it.

While the majority of the discussion about amending amendments was sometimes perplexing, perhaps the most baffling was what happened to Clarkson’s amendment that would have ended the pilot program if a court found any aspect of it to be against the law.

Gray instead suggested doing away with Clarkson’s wording and replacing it with language that would require the council to take action within 30 days of a court finding any provision “invalid.”

That, in turn, makes the council legally liable to make changes within a month of any court action. Still, the amended amendment passed 5-2, with Hedge-Morrell and Clarkson voting against it.

Amendments by Head and Clarkson to set fines, stop trucks from operating near structures used only for residential purposes and require permits to be displayed passed unanimously and with little discussion.

The new ordinance prohibits food trucks from operating in the French Quarter, which is already off limits, and the area of the Central Business District, with the boundaries including the Mississippi River, Rampart Street, Esplanade Avenue and Howard Avenue and Andrew Higgins Drive. Also off limits to the trucks is Frenchmen Street between Esplanade Avenue and Royal Street.

Permits for food trucks will cost $600 a year. When a food-truck operator applies for a permit, he or she must have commercial general liability insurance coverage of no less than $500,000.