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Food Cart Crackdown: New rules could mean big changes for small businesses 

New food cart laws have drawn criticism from all sides.

What was once a vacant lot on Galveston Avenue, with little more than browned cheatgrass and the odd beer can littering its premises, is now the temporary home to a popular food cart - one that has added picnic tables, umbrellas and planters to the former eyesore.

The owners of Spork, the Godfather of Bend's food cart scene, also graded the property, pulled weeds and cut the unruly grass. They picked up the trash and added landscaping gravel. Now, the welcoming Galveston location is a place to find delicious food for cheap.


It's also ground zero in a debate over a new set of city rules that aim to regulate the growing food cart scene in Bend, one which is currently unregulated by the city in any way and is a cause for concern for traditional "brick and mortar" restaurant owners, some of who have complained that city is not holding food carts to the same standards.

"It's not a very organized system," said Bend City Manager Eric King.

The new regulations proposed by the city - which would require carts on undeveloped lots, like Spork, to improve their locations with new surfacing, landscaping and additions such as bike racks - have drawn criticism from food cart owners. The carts have relied on thin margins to carve out a bright spot in the tough Central Oregon economy. And though the rules haven't been determined, it's likely that they will place a financial burden on some carts, potentially forcing them to shut down, said some cart owners.

"It really is an attack on mobile food carts," said Michael McCann, co-owner of Real Food Street Bistro, a relative newcomer to the scene down the street from Spork on Columbia Avenue.

City councilors and city staff have met repeatedly with food cart owners to hammer out rules palatable to those small business owners, but there are still sticking points, such as how long a cart can remain in one location. There's also a question of access. People in the disabled community are wondering if they are being considered in the development of the new rules.

The Bend City Council will consider the new food cart ordinance at a meeting this Wednesday night, April 4, though councilors and members of a city economic advisory board said they are in favor of postponing any decision-making until a later date.

"I will support tabling it tomorrow night to clarify language," said Councilor Tom Greene, who has led the effort on the council to meet with food cart owners.

BEHIND THE RULES

The Wednesday night meeting is likely to be dominated by discussion of the finer points of the new regulations, not whether regulations are a good thing. As food carts have exploded all over the country, in cities like Portland, San Francisco and Austin, cities have set up rules to make sure these roving carts are safe and in compliance with city standards. Food cart owners in Bend say they understand the need for oversight, too.

But exactly how far the rules should go, and where the impetus for them comes from is a sore subject for some cart owners. As in other cities, such as Chicago, brick and mortar restaurants have been frustrated by the popularity of food carts. In response to the pressure from the restaurant community, officials in Chicago developed strict food cart regulations that prevent cart workers from preparing fresh dishes on-site and from operating within 200 feet of an existing restaurant, according to the Chicago Tribune.

It's brick and mortar restaurants in Bend driving the new food cart rules, too, said city councilors and city staff. As carts have gained traction, restaurant owners have increasingly complained that the city is not requiring carts to comply with development codes, allowing carts to circumvent many of the costs that traditional restaurants incur.

"It's a threat," says Brian Dioguardi, owner of Baldy's BBQ.

Dioguardi has seen mobile food carts pop up all around his SW Century Drive location and says he can't afford to lose any customers, not in this economy. But he said he's conflicted because he sees the appeal of food carts and wants those businesses to succeed.

"Sometimes I feel like I don't have a reason to complain about it," said Dioguardi. "But I would like to see the same kind of guidelines enforced."

THEMS THE RULES

City staff said they feel obligated to enforce regulations in a way that creates a "level playing field." The new rules are being developed for food carts aim to create more fairness for restaurants and a more orderly way to monitor the carts, said city staff, but also be reasonable for cart owners.

"If you are just a guy on a cart, well you kind of are just like a building," said Craig Chenoweth, a City of Bend planner working on the cart regulations. "It is only fair to say-everybody else has to go through (a site review) so why wouldn't you, too."

Here's the gist of the rules as they are currently proposed.

Any cart that sits in a location for more than 30 days in a calendar year must go to the city and ask it to review the cart's location to make sure the site is still in compliance with the city's minimum development standards. Those standards include landscaping on 15 percent of the property, proper stormwater drainage, surfacing requirements, adequate parking and providing bike racks, among other site development guidelines.

If the site does not comply with city standards, the owner of the property where the cart is parked must improve it so that the standards are met. This could mean several thousand dollars of changes for some properties, including the location of Spork.

In a letter to the city, Spork's Chris Lohrey, said he was also told by a city planner that modifications may need to be made addressing everything from how people drive on and off the lot, to parking and utilities. A costly permit, study and SDC process may also be involved.

Part of the problem with the new regulations is that it's unclear to many cart owners what the rules actually are, making it difficult to know just how they will be affected and whether they should speak out against them.

Though he's willing to pay his fair share, Luke Maxwell-Muir, the owner of Crazy Delicious, located on Galveston Avenue, said he still doesn't quite understand why city staff are proposing what he believes to be such strong regulations.

"I get it. Yeah, you got to regulate it," said Maxwell-Muir. "[But] they're here for the citizens, for us."

There are a few other major points of contention. For instance, how long a cart should be parked before the rules go into effect. The city's planning commission has recommended 30 days, but cart owners are hoping for something more like 90 days - about the length of a summer season.

Cart owners also want to see leniency on rules about surfacing. If the city were to require that undeveloped sites be paved, that would likely put some carts out of business, said several cart owners.

Finally, cart owners are requesting that the city delay implementation of the new rules until a later date to give them time to save up for any upgrades.

City Councilor Greene said he's particularly in agreement with cart owners on waiting to implement the new rules so the financial shock doesn't drive them out of business.

"I want these people to thrive and feel like they were heard in this process," he said.

ADA WILD CARD

A wild card in this discussion is how the Americans with Disabilities Act plays into the new regulations and whether disabled people in Bend and their allies will bring forth concerns over accessibility to food cart sites to the city in a formal way.

Site development reviews do not currently consider ADA standards, said City Manager Eric King. ADA standards are instead incorporated into the building codes enforced by the city, he said.

Michele Romeo, a local with multiple sclerosis who is a self-described "food cart junkie," said she wants to see food cart sites accessible to the disabled.

One of her favorite carts is Spork, but she can't access it at the Galveston Avenue location because of the deep, large-grain gravel that covers the space.

"I just can't get there because of the surfacing the owner elected to put on the lot," said Romeo.

Even though it appears that there are no ADA standards required in site reviews, she is hopeful that the city will consider accessibility in the new food cart ordinance. She is disappointed that a disabled accessibility advisory committee that reports to the city manager has not been consulted on the new rules.

"I think the City of Bend has just done a really poor job on managing interactions like this from the get go," said Romeo of the city's track record on ADA accessibility issues.

City Manager Eric King said no one from the disabled advisory committee has raised the food cart regulations issue and that he wants to see food carts accessible to people with disabilities.

"The bottom line is that we want...food carts accessible to everybody in the community," he said.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW

How this and the other concerns over the new regulations will play out on Wednesday night is unclear, but city officials will hear public testimony and discuss the details of the regulations.

It's likely that the council will make some decisions and send the language of the ordinance to city staff to hammer out all the details, possibly with the assistance of members of the community.

In the meantime, food cart owners hope that they can continue to have a strong presence in Bend's burgeoning foodie scene, while also providing economic value to some of Bend's empty lots.

"For someone who's taken a shitty spot and made it a nice spot - how could you say anything about that?" said Maxwell-Muir about what food carts have done for the corners of Bend streets.

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