Washington, DC: Best and Worst of D.C. Vending Reg Comments

The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington would like to levy stiff fines on food trucks that violate parking laws. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

By Tim Carman | WashingtonPost.com 

The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington would like to levy stiff fines on food trucks that violate parking laws. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

So perhaps not all the public’s comments have reached the Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs, but among the 200 or so that did, there are a handful of ideas worth pondering — if some just for a good laugh.

Here at All We Can Eat, we’ve read through most of the public submissions, and we’ve organized the highlights and lowlights by categories:

Good ideas

* The DC Food Truck Association wants the District Department of Transportation to justify and then devise a formal petition process before arbitrarily transforming a popular block for food trucks into a potentially more restrictive Mobile Roadway Vending location.

Writes the DCFTA: “DDOT and other agencies would document all complaints they receive regarding blocked entrances to buildings, impaired pedestrian or vehicular passage, or instances of unsafe conditions as a result of mobile vending operations on a particular block where an MRV location is being proposed and submit those complaints to the Mobile Roadway Vending community. . . . Mobile vendors would then have the opportunity to address the complaints before they become chronic.”

* The Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington wants food truck operators to be responsible for trash within a 25-foot radius of their vehicles. Notes the association in its comments: “Trash from customers patronizing vendors, continues to be a problem throughout the city, with too much of the burden falling on the National Park Service or other entities to remove the trash and other debris left behind by vending customers. It is not sufficient for a vendor to affix a litter container to their truck especially since most are too small to hold much trash.”

Olive branches

* The food truck association is proposing the creation of what it calls a Vending Improvement Detail, or VID, which will work something like a business improvement district but without geographical boundaries. VID employees would, among other things, help manage food truck lines, clean up trash in vending areas and work closely with DDOT and the DCRA to deal with any complaints forwarded to the agencies. The proposal would address many of the complaints routinely expressed by brick-and-mortar restaurants and BIDs.

* The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington is recommending that vending be allowed on “unobstructed sidewalks” less than 10 feet wide, as long as the DDOT director determines the “flow of pedestrian traffic at a location is sufficiently light” to allow a narrower passageway. This suggestion still gives DDOT the unilateral power to decide which blocks in the important Central Business District would be open to food trucks, but it’s at least a sign that RAMW wants the regulations to formally state that unobstructed sidewalks less than 10 feet wide would be allowed. Such a stipulation is not currently in the regs.

The Hardliners

Ed Grandis, executive director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association, believes D.C. parking meters should be off-limits to food trucks. Writes Grandis: “The concept of allowing commercial activity at a parking meter is inconsistent with the public policy that parking meters are for customers, not commercial activity or employees. Parking meters are not appropriate locations for vending or any commercial activity.”

* John Boyle, longtime owner of Harry’s Restaurant and Saloondowntown, writes that the nine (or so) food trucks that park near Metro Center have hurt his lunch business, forcing him to lay off servers and cooks. “My guess is that my one restaurant employs more D.C. residents and pays more D.C. taxes than all nine of the trucks combined. Besides keeping some very vocal food truck supporters and lobbyists happy, what good are these food trucks doing for the residents and local economy of D.C.?” Boyle writes.

RAMW wants street vendors to somehow, some way, find a business on, say, Farragut Square that will allow food truck employees to use its restrooms. Writes RAMW in its comments: “Mobile Roadway Vendors should be required to provide basic sanitation for employees by way of restroom facilities. Dallas, Texas, is an example of a jurisdiction with such a requirement. There, vendors must show a written agreement with one or more businesses for restroom access as a condition of licensure.”

Saad Jallad is the owner of Crepeaway on L Street NW downtown, and along with his comments, he apparently submitted a photo of a food truck vendor wearing no shoes or socks. He’s concerned about public health, which is why he proposes that food trucks have “designated spots so the [Department of Health] can monitor them properly and require each truck owner to install or provide access to a bathroom for employees.”

The Protectionists

* In one tongue-twisting sentence, the Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association wants to prevent food trucks from vending near restaurants that have a similar kind of menu. Writes the association: “We request that the proposed regulations be amended to prevent a food truck from parking along a block front where an establishment that sells prepared food that is not pre-packaged for carryout, whether or not the establishment also serves food on the premises, if the food it sells is similar to the food that the food truck offers.”

Mike Pappas, representing the District’s sidewalk vendors, wants similar protections for his clients. “DCRA must ensure that all the vending community has equal protection and fairness. A mobile vending truck with [a] similar product should not be allowed to be within economic proximity of a sidewalk vendor.” The term “economic proximity” is not defined.

The Sidewalk Philosophers

* The DC Food Truck Association notes in its comments that the District wants to create separate rules for mobile vendors and for sidewalk vendors, the latter of whom are not required to have 10 feet of “unobstructed” sidewalk space in order to operate. Writes DCFTA: “[P]erhaps the clearest evidence that the proposed sidewalk width restriction would treat mobile vendors very differently than others in comparable situations is the fact that there are no existing or proposed sidewalk width restrictions applicable to Stationary Roadway Vendors.”

Baylen J. Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, has aprovocative take on the “problem” of crowded sidewalks, which is ostensibly one reason to regulate food trucks: “Pedestrians also crowd city sidewalks during rush hour at most downtown Metro stations; assemble on the sidewalks around the Washington Nationals ballpark before, during, and after games; and congregate on the sidewalks outside the Verizon Center before and after concerts and sporting events. These mass consumer gatherings are not problems in search of regulatory solutions. Rather, they’re each examples of the economic activity that has helped transform some previously moribund parts of the District into particularly vibrant spaces full of taxpayers.”

The legal argument

* The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that fights against protectionist laws in cities across the country, notes that, contrary to what DDOT thinks, the agency’s director would not be able to set aside regulatory rules to create special Mobile Roadway Vending locations for food trucks. Writes IoJ: “To be blunt, the District’s position that it will have the discretion to ignore the clear language of its own regulations is simply wrong; as the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has repeatedly noted, ‘[v]erbs such as ‘must’ and ‘shall’ denote mandatory requirements. . . unless such construction is inconsistent with the manifest intent of the legislature or repugnant to the context of the statute.’ ”

The cold slap

* The restaurant association wants to levy stiff fines to food truck operators who violate parking laws. “A minimum fine of $500 is appropriate,” the association writes in its comments. “A separation violation of ‘non-compliance with parking regulations while in the act of vending’ should become part of the traffic regulations. There should be escalating fines for repeat violators, just as there are for regulatory infractions committed by other businesses.”

The association doesn’t stipulate whether these large fines would apply to other commercial trucks such as FedEx or Sysco.