Taco trucks in jeopardy?

kirsten's picture

I was very distressed to read in the Carrboro Citizen that the town development review administrator is trying to shut down the taco trucks that serve food in the parking lots at Fitch's Lumber, Cliff's Meat Market and Johnny's Sporting Goods -- in response to one anonymous complaint. They have until tomorrow to shut down. They can appeal the decision, but that process will cost $250 a pop. You can read the full article here.

I have loved the taco trucks. I love the food. I love that the food is cheap and quick and fresh. I love their salsa. And what I really love (almost as much as their salsa, and the fact that they serve tripe, which I never have the nerve to try) is that they are some of the most diverse dining establishments in town.

Is there anything hungry citizens can do to save the taco trucks??

 

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Total votes: 0

32 Comments

I don't know what we can do

I don't know what we can do to appeal the decision to shut down the taco trucks, but I'd really like to know what I can do. I live near Johnny's Sporting Goods, and that taco truck is a lot more than a place for good, cheap eats -- it's an important community space where people meet and talk and enjoy each other's company. Please share any info that you can find about saving the taco trucks!
AE.Odoul's picture

Board of Adjustment

From all of the friendly noises coming from the Mayor and Ms. Gist, it seems likely that the Board of Adjustment will provide a sympathetic review to any appeals that the property owners might make.  It would be nice if there was some way to roll all three appeals into one, thereby saving the taco-truck owners $500 in filing fees.  $250 split three ways is less than $84 -- a far cry from the $250 per truck they'll have to put up as of now.

 Does anyone know if treating all three zoning appeals as one case is possible?  Shutting these guys down on a zoning technicality due an anonymous complaint would be a seriously un-Carrboro thing to do.

AE 

jrees's picture

How can we help the taco trucks?

I am not sure if I understand this. Someone can make an anonymous complaint (and the complaint certainly cost nothing to make) and the taco truck owners need to cough up 500 each to file an appeal? In Carrboro?

It seems that now the complaint has been registered, the poor owners are caught up in the process. Whether the zoning appeal process is fair or not, if it’s the legal process for getting the trucks back, and it must be followed until it can be changed.

How about a fund to help the truck owners get out of zoning trouble?
AE.Odoul's picture

Clarification

I think it works like this -- if someone complains (even anonymously), the city is required to investigate the complaint.  As it turns out in this case, there's a prima facie case that the taco trucks really do violate city zoning, and so they will have to appeal to the Board of Adjustment, presumably for some sort of zoning waiver (or some other type of exemption from the zoning requirements).  The cost of filing the appeal is $250 per property owner.  

 The obvious solution would be to change the zoning to allow the trucks, but this would take time and expense, it would be cumbersome, and it might have a significant downside that no one's thought of yet.  If there is some sort of zoning waiver that can be obtained, it would be an efficient way to resolve this specific problem (albeit in an ad hoc fashion) without having to re-zone downtown Carrboro.  The problem is that $250 is an expensive proposition for a taco truck owner, and of course its actually the property owners (Fitch, Cliff's, etc) that will have to file the appeals.  There's no telling if they're willing to go to the trouble or not.  They don't even own the taco trucks. 

 I rather suspect that this is going to get sorted out.  No one has publicly expressed anything but support for the taco truck owners, and I don't think the logistical or policy barriers are insurmountable.  Of course, its possible that all the restaurateurs will show up at the Board of Adjustment meeting to speak against the taco truck owners, but that's what these sorts of meetings are for.  If there's a constituency with a gripe, they should get to air it out in public.

AE 

Mark Chilton's picture

Taco-Gate!

The Carrboro town staff is looking into the most efficient solution to this problem at the moment.  I don't know exactly what that solution will be, but it seems like there ought to be a simple and inexpensive way for a taco truck to operate in downtown Carrboro.

I'm not at all confidant that a zoning appeal to the Board of Adjustment is really the best thing for the taco truck owners to do.

AE.Odoul's picture

Avoiding the taco shortage!

I think you're right about the problems with an appeal to the B of A, but would that at least keep these guys operating while a better solution was developed?  I'd hate to see them get shut down while we're all trying to figure out how to keep them open.  

From the Citizen article it looks like they needed to have shut down by today to avoid "action" from the town.  I doubt this kind of small business can survive a very long period without generating revenue.

 AE 

Mark Chilton's picture

The Magic Eight Ball

The Magic Eight Ball says: More tacos are in Carrboro's future.

At this point, if you are concerned about the taco trucks, you can probably best show your support by patronizing the trucks this weekend.

May I recommend the pollo asado?
Mark Chilton's picture

Memo from Carrboro Staff

MEMORANDUM

TO:                             Mayor Mark Chilton and the Board of Aldermen

FROM:                       Martin Roupe, Development Review Administrator

DATE:                        January 25, 2008

 

SUBJECT:                 Additional Information on Violation Notices Pertaining to Mobile Food Vendors             

At the Manager’s request, I am writing to provide additional information about recently-issued violation notices pertaining to three (3) mobile food vendors as well as some historical information for reference.  I am happy to answer any questions that may arise about this matter. As you may know, the Zoning Division (ZD) recently issued land use ordinance violation (LUOVIO) notices to three separate property owners in Carrboro (Johnny’s Sporting Goods, Fitch Lumber, and Cliff’s Meat Market).  This action was taken in response to an anonymous complaint, which obligates the ZD to investigate the situation.  As it was clear and evident that mobile food vendors were operating at the sites, little investigation was necessary, and so the ZD issued the LUOVIOs as a result of the complaint.  Additional, related information is provided below: 

 

  • LUO Section 15-149.  The applicable LUO section states in part, “(c) Without limiting the generality of the foregoing provisions, the following uses are specifically prohibited in all districts:  (4) The use of any motor vehicle (as defined in Section 6‑1 of the Town Code), parked on a lot, as a structure in which, out of which, or from which any goods are sold or stored, any services performed, or other businesses conducted (as defined in Section 8‑1 of the Town Code) except that the following shall not be prohibited by this subdivision: (i) retail sales of goods and food products manufactured, created or produced by the seller, (ii) the sale of food products on town property by persons authorized by  or acting on behalf of the town…”  For the last several years, prior to my employment with the Town in fact, this section has been consistently interpreted to allow the sale of food out of vehicles in only limited circumstances primarily related to the Farmer’s Market, which is specifically covered by combination of 15-149(c)(4)(i)&(ii).  Several people have approached the Town regarding the possibility of starting such an establishment and each inquirer was told that such use is not allowed under the LUO.
 
  • Additional History Regarding ZD’s Explanation to Inquirers and Practice.  The ZD was generally aware that such establishments were or had been operating at certain locations around town, and when individuals interested in opening a similar establishment were told no, they often asked about the other similar businesses.  The ZD consistently responded by informing the person that we operate under a complaint-driven system.  We then asked whether the person wished to lodge a formal complaint and almost always were told no, they did not wish to lodge a formal complaint.  On some occasions, though, formal complaints were lodged and the ZD did follow up and require that other similar businesses leave (within the past five or six years).  Two specific examples include: a mobile food vendor operating alongside Estes Drive Extension (adjacent to the Adams Tract property) and a mobile food vendor operating alongside West Main Street on the Short Stop Mini-Market / Citgo Gas Station property (at 300 West Main Street).  Since then, no other complaints have been lodged until the recent incident.
 
  • Possibility, In Some Cases, To Operate Outside a Vehicle.  When individuals inquired about the possibility of operating as a mobile food vendor, the ZD consistently has mentioned that it is possible on some properties around town to conduct outdoor food sales as long as it is done outside of a vehicle (so long as the zoning district for the subject property allows outdoor food service and consumption, it is properly permitted for such a use, and the property owner grants permission).  As a recent example, several months ago, the ZD reviewed and approved a ‘vegetable stand’ on the 300 East Main property.  The vendor set up tables, outside of a vehicle, on which he placed his products for sale.  Of note, the only property currently under discussion where such a use is allowed is Cliff’s Meat Market.
 
  • Anonymous Complaint.  Note that it is the Town’s longstanding practice to accept and act upon anonymous complaints.  While some cities require signed, written complaints before taking action on alleged violations, Carrboro has thus far not chosen to do so.  It certainly is possible that this policy may be changed with respect to future actions, but staff needs to receive direction if that is the Board’s desire.
 
  • Possible Resolutions to Situation.  Three (3) possible ways appear evident to resolve the matters currently under discussion, as further described below:
 
  •  
    • Mobile food vendors may leave the sites and possibly attempt to find an acceptable place to operate (i.e.: outside of a vehicle on an appropriate property or within a building);
    • Someone may file an appeal (for $250 filing fee) with the Board of Adjustment.  Either one or a combination of the three letter recipients may choose to file an appeal within 30 days of receiving notice of the LUOVIO.  This action will put the matter before the Board of Adjustment for further consideration and interpretation of the applicable LUO language.  Note that filing an appeal also will ‘stay’ any further action on the part of the Town.  In effect, in absence of clear threat to public health, safety, or welfare, the mobile food vendors would be able to continue operating until the Board of Adjustment renders a decision on the matter.
    • A LUO Text Amendment request may be filed by a citizen or the Board of Aldermen may direct staff to prepare a text amendment.  Presumably such a text amendment would clarify where and when such land uses are acceptable and establish clear parameters for when permission for such a use should be granted.  Obviously such an action involves an amount of time for item preparation and a public hearing.
 
  • Further Action On the Part of the Zoning Division.  For your information, all the Zoning Division has done thus far is issue a letter to the respective property owners citing a LUOVIO and asking for voluntary action to bring the property into compliance with the LUO.  While the letter does contain a stated ‘deadline’ by which time the vendors are expected to stop operating, it may be worth noting (so that everyone is clear with regard to where we are) that the ZD must issue a ‘final notice of violation,’ which specifically cites an exact civil penalty for inaction and timeline for imposing such penalty before any property owner or vendor will be directly subject to civil penalties, fines, etc.
BrianR's picture

Thanks for the Quick Public Info

Thanks for posting this Mark. Its this kind of CONTEXT based open information sharing that all our local governments should participate in. (Timely Information = informed citizen) Not to derail the thread but, both Carrboro, OC, and CH need to have a better & quicker public document system online.
Now if we could get Mayor Foy to *participate* with the public in the same way...
AE.Odoul's picture

Thanks for Posting This

It looks like the relevant LUO's are fairly clear on this, and on the face of it, it doesn't look particularly promising for the taco guys.  Of the three possible solutions offered by Mr. Roupe, only the third, a LUO Text Amendment, shows much promise for providing permanent relief to the property owners and vendors.  It doesn't seem like an appeal to the Board of Adjustment will do much except buy time, since the LUO's, and precedents concerning their interpretation, are fairly clear (at least from Mr. Roupe's language). 

Four questions:

  1. Will the taco guys (and/or property owners) be required to file appeals to stay open while further actions are contemplated, or will the Zoning Division 'take its time' in issuing final notices of violation, effectively giving the taco guys a reprieve?
  2. Is there any chance that the taco guys could actually win an appeal?
  3. Would the Board of Aldermen be likely to push through a LUO Text Amendment in a timely fashion if that's what turns out to be necessary to save the taco trucks?
  4. Would a LUO Text Amendment open the floodgates to every would-be food stand operator in Orange County, making Carrboro the street-food capital of North Carolina?
Thanks again for posting the memo.  It's nice to know what wheels are actually turning.
 
AE 
Mark Chilton's picture

An Appealing Issue?

Is there any chance that the taco guys could actually win an appeal?

I guess the meaning of "retail sales of goods and food products manufactured, created or produced by the seller" could be debated.  The taco trucks are mostly selling taquitos and whatnot that are made by them before your eyes . . .

And I think that is part of what makes them appealing versus say Taco Bell selling 7-Layer burritos out of a portable food warmer.  Which also gets at some of the issues that you raise in question 4 above. 

The way I read that ordinance, it seems to say that Taco Bell could sell 7-layer Burritos out of a food warmer as long as the food warmer was not mounted inside a vehicle.  That is to say, apparently selling out of a push cart would be okay, but out of a taco truck is not.  That, I guess, is why Squeaky's hotdogs did not run afoul of this same rule.

AE.Odoul's picture

What if they take the wheels off?

I like your interpretation of the LUO, but it might be a bit much for the Board of Adjustment to swallow in good conscience.  I don't know what the original purposeof the LUO was meant to be, but the intent seems fairly clear -- to prohibit guys from selling stuff out of their cars (or trucks or trailers), unless it is something they made themselves.  You're absolutely right that the concept of what  constitutes "produced by the seller" has conveniently fuzzy edges that could be exploited to save the taco guys, but it pushes the definition of that phrase pretty close to the limit.

 Could they instead simply remove the wheels from their vehicles, making them permanent, or at least semi-permanent fixtures in the parking lots?  I don't know what the property owners take on that would be, but it might be an easy way to avoid running afoul of the Board of Adjustment.

 As a complete aside, does this ordinance ban people from selling firewood out of their pickup trucks?  (Please note that I am very specifically NOT making a complaint here -- just curious about some of the consequences of this LUO.) 

 -Gracias, the pollo asado was muy bueno.

 AE 

AE.Odoul's picture

Must Be...

I think that's got to be the standard interpretation of "produced by the seller", and if it is, it would probably lend credibility to your original proposed interpretation that the taquitos, etc are in fact produced by the sellers also.  If "cutting and splitting" amounts to "producing", then "preparing, cooking, assembling and packaging" might also.  

 Thanks for being so actively engaged on this topic -- I think its important to a lot of people, not just to save the taco guys, but to get the policy on street-vending right.

 AE 

What about the shrimp guy?

So what about the guy selling shrimp across from the Farmer's Market? Shouldn't he be held to these same standards? Or is he OK because he's not selling Mexican food? He isn't manufacturing, creating OR producing what he's selling.

And I'm totally confused how the taco trucks are NOT performing "retail sales of goods and food products manufactured, created or produced by the seller". The definition doesn't seem ambiguous at all to me - they're definitely creating what they're selling.

Seems like someone out there has an ax to grind and is too chicken to put their name to their complaint. Maybe a competing restaurant owner? (yeah, I'm a conspiracy theorist)

P.S. Maybe if there is a chance the taco truck folks can win an appeal, we need to take up a collection to pay their $250 entrance fees.
AE.Odoul's picture

I was thinking that too

I was wondering about the shrimp guy too, but since he takes his stuff out of his truck before he sells it I guess he's covered.  As for whether the taco guys are or aren't "producing" what they sell, maybe you're right and it isn't as ambiguous as it at first seemed to me.  My model for "manufactured, created or produced by the seller" is farm produce and the products that farmers make from them (like a rhubarb pie made from rhubarb the farmer grew).  Perhaps that's the far edge of the standard.

 And you definitely don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to think the original complaint came from someone with an axe to grind -- most of us are thinking the same thing, I think.

 I'm still wondering about the answer to my original question -- could all three appeals be rolled into one to save the taco guys $500?  All three cases are clearly identical, and one ruling should work equally well for all three of them.

 AE 

Produced vs. created

Actually, I was thinking the "created" term is what would apply to the taco trucks. "Produced" would definitely be less apt to describe what they're doing, IMHO. But the key is the "or" in the terms, meaning that just one of them has to apply, not all - and I don't think there's much argument that they're not "creating" their own products.

Mark Chilton's picture

The three appeals could be

The three appeals could be heard as one, I believe - as long as all three appeals present essentially the same issues/facts, which I think they do.

I guess the ways in which the ordinance is debatable are:

1. Do the trucks sell anything that they do not make themselves (eg cans of Coke or packages of chips)?

2. Also when the ordinance says "retail sales of goods and food products manufactured, created or produced by the seller" does that imply that the seller must have grown the crops etc. as is usually the case at the Farmer's Market.  I don't know.  Seems to me as though it should not be read that way, but it would be instructive to know how and why this rule was ever put in place.

AE.Odoul's picture

That's the Nail All This Hangs On...

Your point number one will be fairly easy to discover and settle.  If the guys are selling Cokes and chips, they'll have to stop, but that in itself shouldn't put them out of business.

Point number two is the nail the whole appeal hangs on...what constitutes "manufactured, created or produced".  Only the Board of Adjustment members can definitively answer that question, and even they might have to be guided by some precedent we're not aware of at the moment.

It's good to hear that the three appeals can probably be heard as one -- that will at least save everyone some time and some cash.

Now about that street-food capital of North Carolina thing, if we can get through a text amendment specifically allowing street-vending of foods, maybe we can create a new industry in food tourism for the town.  In Brooklyn, the street-food is more interesting than most of the restaurants. And just think how cheesed-off the guy who left the anonymous complaint would be if that was the final outcome of his action?

AE 

Bring It On !

While I think it's a tinch premature to send this issue up to the Board of Adjustment, I wouldn't mind studying it more closely if it comes to that. The LUO is full of loopholes and contradictions -- grounds for amending the relevant ordinance(s) -- but this case doesn't justify such a dramatic sweep.

As a member of the Board of Adjustment, I can't say which way I feel inclined to vote on the Taco Trucks. I can say the answer can be found in the LUO, our bible, as interpreted by Marty Roupe and the Town Attorney. We shouldn't have to grant a special dispensation.

AE.Odoul's picture

If I understand what you're saying...

To quote Mr. Roupe above:

For the last several years, prior to my employment with the Town in fact, this section has been consistently interpreted to allow the sale of food out of vehicles in only limited circumstances primarily related to the Farmer’s Market, which is specifically covered by combination of 15-149(c)(4)(i)&(ii).  Several people have approached the Town regarding the possibility of starting such an establishment and each inquirer was told that such use is not allowed under the LUO. 

This seems to indicate a clear history of the town NOT allowing food stands of the type now in question.  So if the LUO, as intrpreted by Marty Roupe and the Town Attorney, is your primary guide, then it doesn't look good in taco-ville.

One question:  why do you think this case doesn't provide enough grounds for revisiting the LUO's?  As you point out, there are some significant inconsistencies in them, and there is at least some level of interest from the citizenry in allowing the operation of mobile food stands.  It is undoubtedly a big hairy can of worms, but that's what makes local politics such an interesting spectator sport.   ;-) 

 Thanks for the input,

AE 

AE.Odoul's picture

As I re-read your post

As I re-read your post I think I now understand your meaning.  Are you saying that you DO think that the LUO's merit review, but NOT because of the facts in these particular cases?

 If I followed the gist of your original post correctly, that would make sense to me.

I'd still be interested to see the town take up the issue of how to best regulate street-vending,  whether within the context of these cases or otherwise.  Carrboro is a well-run town where things tend to work smoothly, and there's a natural tendency not to mess too much with things that work.  But on the other hand, there appears to be at least some positive sentiment in town about allowing street-vending of food.  Catherine is undoubtedly correct that this kind of policy review places a burden on town staff, but perhaps the benefits of a revised policy would be worth the trouble. 

 Thanks again,

 AE 

Catherine DeVine's picture

LUO + Conscience = Guide

Bring it on! The Carrboro Citizen reports that the Taco Truck proprietors have paper showing they meet health department standards and/or are licensed to do what they do apart from Carrboro LUO regs. So they never obtained permission from the Town, and now come under scrutiny.

Changing the ordinance can be a big hairy can of worms. This is why my fingers are crossed. Sometimes it involves the insertion of a few clarifying words in one section; other times the amendment has a ripple effect. It's always costly and burdensome in terms of staff time.

Are the three Taco Trucks rivals? Would one bust another anonymously? This might come out if one of them appeals.

Catherine DeVine

rivals?

According to Gerardo, who runs the taco truck at Cliff's, the three trucks have nothing but friendly competition going on. He said it couldn't even qualify as "rivalidad"

Katie Spencer

Catherine DeVine's picture

All's well, sort of ....

The aldermen voted last night to amend the ordinance.  I wasn't tuned in (surprised they met on Super Tuesday), but I still maintain the issue isn't large enough to merit such a radical solution.  Glad AE sees my point.  

This tells me the BOA backs Marty, and Marty had a strong LUO-based case from the get-go.  He should feel okay about the way it's turned out.   

 

 

Catherine DeVine

AE.Odoul's picture

Your prediction was spot on

Hi Catherine:

I took a look at the video of the Aldermen's meeting, and I think you must be prescient!  The first thing they're going to do is have staff work up some possible language.  "Burden on staff time" I think was how you put it.  You nailed it.

 I continue to think this issue is worth examining at this level.  There's a clear policy of not allowing vehicle-based food stands, and a clear desire on the part of at least some people to permit them.  By raising the issue and beginning the research and analysis process, I think the Board of Aldermen is demonstrating an admirable responsiveness on this issue. 

I have no idea whether Carrboro should ultimately amend this LUO or not, and I certainly don't know what the best policy on street-vending would look like.  The goal is obviously to promote a vibrant, friendly, safe and clean downtown Carrboro.  In many cities and towns, street-vending adds color and flavor (I didn't just say that, did I?) to a community, and it gets people out and about.  On those merits, I think its worth the town's time to re-examine the current policy.

 

Mark Chilton's picture

We'll see.

I don't know just what the staff will come up with in their proposal, but I would hope that these types of sales would only be allowed:

1. on existing commercial premises,

2. where the vendor can demonstrate that s/he has the property owner's permission, and

3. maybe some rules regarding parking/noise/hours of operation.

Although none of those issues have been problems in the past, so far as I am aware.