By Contributor | Journal Tribune
An ordinance to place restrictions on mobile food vendors in Kennebunk is clearly aimed at the valid goal of protecting the existing businesses in the town, but we agree with some of its detractors that its provisions are overreaching.
A public hearing is slated for Aug. 15 on the proposed mobile food vending ordinance, and it’s sure to be spirited, as even some selectmen have said they do not support all of the ordinance’s provisions.
As proposed, the ordinance would deny a mobile food vendor license to any person who has been incarcerated for a year or more within the past five years; and prohibit operation within 100 feet of a restaurant or other establishment that sells similar products, with the definition being that 40 percent of their products are similar.
An exemption to the 100-foot rule would be allowed if the businesses are closed or if a mobile vendor gets a consent waiver from nearby businesses.
While other towns are looking for the state’s “business friendly” designation, it seems Kennebunk is doing just the opposite, telling mobile vendors to take their carts someplace else. In the town’s busiest walking areas, it’s nearly impossible to be 100 feet away from a restaurant and still be in a desirable location.
Towns do not have to enforce rules that impact health and safety of the operations, since the state is in the business of regulating mobile food vendors, to ensure safe food is being sold to the public. Such vendors’ operations are subject to water quality testing and regular health inspections, per the state’s Division of Environmental Health.
What the town should be regulating is any concerns related to safe operation of such vendors, such as setback from the road, obstruction of sidewalks, lighting and noise restrictions and the like. It certainly shouldn’t be saying who can and cannot operate a mobile food unit if they have a state license to do so. It seems inappropriate and unfair to lock out someone who has served jail time from making a new start with a food cart.
Town Manager Barry Tibbetts has said the town has concerns about the transitory nature of such carts, which can vanish after a time when the proprietor pulls up stakes and moves on to a new location. However, it’s not the town’s business to vet each business owner’s reputation, and indeed, it’s not a process to which other business owners are subject if they operate in buildings.
Concerns about the vendors’ impact on existing businesses are also unfounded. At first glance, it makes sense that the town would want an ordinance to keep a lobster roll cart from popping up in front of a casual seafood restaurant, for example. But the two are not really in competition.
As Selectmen Chairman Al Searles noted, if someone wants to stop and buy a soda or a snack like a hot dog or pretzel, they’re not going to patronize a sit-down restaurant. The mobile vendors serve a separate purpose and can be part of a great mix of businesses in Kennebunk, giving tourists and locals alike different options for food while they’re in the area. In our capitalistic society, there is room for both types of businesses, and it’s not appropriate for the town to block them.
The most recent version of the ordinance has been softened to allow the waiver so businesses can OK the operation of a food cart that offers similar items. That seems patently unfair to mobile vendors, however, since surrounding businesses would have no say at all if similar competition opened up in the building next door.
We hope those who turn out to the Aug. 15 hearing will tell selectmen to reject this ordinance as written and give the board more time to consider the fairness issues it has brought up. This summer season is already half-way through, and it makes sense for the board to wait for the next season and get this right before enforcing an anti-business, exclusionary ordinance.