Sylva, NC: Sylva to revisit food truck rules

By Holly Kays  |  Smoky Mountain News

With two years elapsed since Sylva passed its first-ever food truck ordinance in July 2017, the town board is circling back to discuss what’s working, what’s not and what could be better.

“It’s been a while since we adopted the food truck ordinance, and we had discussed coming back and reviewing it after a certain amount of time,” Town Manager Paige Dowling told the board during its Oct. 24 meeting.

The ordinance requires food truck and food cart operators to pay $100 for a six-month permit fee to operate inside city limits, with additional fees required for special town events. Those fees vary — it’s $25 per Concerts on the Creek event but $75 for the Fourth of July. There’s also a $45 zoning fee to have the truck’s location approved by the Jackson County Planning Department, which contracts with the town to provide planning and zoning services. The ordinance lays out a host of requirements governing location, with food trucks prohibited from blocking sidewalks and driveways, vending in public streets and public parking spaces, and setting up within 15 feet of a fire hydrant.

Curt Collins, who owns the food cart Brew Dawgz, was the only member of the public to speak on the issue, and he didn’t have much good to say about the ordinance as it stands now.

“The ordinance in my opinion kind of needs to be tossed in the trash,” he said.

The fees are too high and the restrictions too restrictive, said Collins, to the point that he’s likely shutting Brew Dawgz down in the near future.

“For the longest time I wasn’t even paying attention to the money,” he said. “I was having a great time. I was doing something I loved and I was in the town I loved. But I crunched numbers and that was where I was at.”

He’s not the only one, said Collins, naming off several other food truck businesses that have shut down or pulled out of Sylva.

Collins told commissioners that the food vendors signed up for Concerts on the Creek events should be advertised along with the bands, and that the town should amend part of the ordinance that could be interpreted as preventing food truck customers from throwing their trash in public receptacles.

The biggest problems, though, are the restrictions on location and high fees, Collins said. What if vendors who had already paid the $100 fee for a six-month permit were allowed to opt out of permit fees for town-sponsored events, he asked? And would the town consider establishing a “food truck corral” of sorts where vendors could congregate and provide a draw for potential customers? Collins likes the idea of establishing such a spot at Depot Park on Mill Street, across from the intersection with Spring Street.“I think that is a fantastic spot for the idea of a food truck corral,” he said. “You could easily get mobile restaurants up in there with plenty of space. You’ve already got tables out there and people eating out there. I think that could be a hot little area for that kind of thing.”

Commissioners seemed receptive to Collins’ comments. Indeed, when the ordinance initially passed back in 2017 commissioners were divided on some of the stipulations contained in it, even though the ordinance ultimately passed unanimously. Commissioner David Nestler had advocated for reducing or removing the six-month permit fees, and Commissioner Greg McPherson had floated the idea of exempting permit-holders from paying fees for special events.

This time around, Nestler voiced support for removing restrictions on food truck customers using public trash cans, and commissioners discussed potential options for food truck parking areas. Because Main and Mill streets are part of the state road N.C. 107, no food trucks could be parked there, but the town could designate space on any town-owned roads. Dowling also said the town intends to start booking acts for Concerts on the Creek earlier in the year, potentially giving food trucks more window to plan their attendance and hopefully attracting a critical mass of eating options to the events. Food truck attendance at the concerts has flagged in recent years, she said.

“I don’t know if it’s the people eating beforehand or the crowd, but people sign up for them and they don’t make money, so they want to cancel the other five that they signed up for that summer, then people that think they’re going to come and have food, there’s nothing available,” said Dowling. “So somehow that’s got to be straightened out if we’re going to have food there.”

Nestler said that he felt the $100-per-six-months itinerant merchant fee was fair but suggested the town review the fees for special events. A key consideration should be how much revenue the fees generate versus how much it costs the town to provide electric power during those events. Ultimately, he said, the discussion should go down to the planning board for more development before coming back to the town board.

“Especially in a small town, the character is defined by small entities and creative entities,” said Collins. “So for a little while there, things were happening, and I feel like from a mobile restaurant perspective it is dead in the water right now. That doesn’t mean it can’t re-happen for us, but this is where it is.”