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Chapel Hill will consider loosening its food truck regulations

Photo: Chapel Hill will consider loosening its food truck regulations (Ana Rocha)
Nancy and Steve Williams and their dog Rebel stand in front of their food truck that will be renovated into a mobile food company called Tumbleweed Cafe. They will feature local and organic foods and hope to move around in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. They are using the food truck project as an investment because their social security will likely not be available for them at retirement.

The half-renovated 1976 Airstream trailer that sits in Steve and Nancy Williams’ driveway in Carrboro represents their plan to make some extra money in tough economic times.

After Monday’s Chapel Hill Town Council public hearing, the Williams are one step closer to operating their food trailer in Chapel Hill.

Kendal Brown, the town’s development principal planner, introduced a new draft of the proposed food trucks ordinance that would allow food trailers to operate in Chapel Hill outside of downtown. Previous drafts of the ordinance prohibited food trailers in all zoning districts.

“The staff was initially envisioning these large trailers squeezing into small lots,” Brown said. “But we have since noticed that trailers come in various sizes and could be accommodated in the areas outside of downtown.”

The proposed ordinance, which the council is expected to consider Nov. 21, would allow food trucks both in and out of the downtown district.

Outside the town center, the proposed limit on the number of food trucks or trailers per parking lot has been relaxed from one truck per 100 spots to one per 30 spots. Previously, lots were capped at one truck downtown and two outside of downtown regardless of lot size, but that also has been reversed.

The permit process was also revised in this draft to allow a food truck operator to use a single permit to operate at multiple locations in town.

Planning board members have said they support the entrepreneurial aspect of food trucks, but the fact that they can’t regulate and tax food trucks’ sales is a problem. In accordance with state law, Chapel Hill cannot require vendors to divulge tax-payment information to the town, Brown said.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce also worried that food trucks could present competition to brick-and-mortar restaurants. The chamber suggested that the town require the food trucks be connected to a base in Orange County, but the town attorney said Chapel Hill cannot legally require this.

“We should not move forward if we can’t work this out,” said Kristen Smith, on behalf of the chamber. “We cannot support the ordinance as drafted.”

But Becky Cascio of Pie Pushers food trailer in Durham and Steve Williams thanked Brown for the trailer amendment.

The Williams said they have spent $5,000 on their trailer since they bought it in July. They expect to spend an additional $7,000 before they can have Tumbleweed Café up and running around March of next year.

The Williams aren’t the first ones to turn to food trucks for extra money in today’s economy. According to resident emails and minutes from past council meetings, multiple people have expressed interest in opening because of the down economy.

Michael Stenke, owner of the Raleigh-based Klausie’s Pizza, said at the Feb. 28 council business meeting that his food truck has brought him success. He opened his truck while unemployed, and said people have since suggested he start a restaurant.

Brown said the planning board will plan a fee schedule and research trailers and enforcement costs before the council meeting.

Nancy Williams said moving toward trucks will help the town.

“It can only bring people in.”

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