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Baltimore's 300-feet food truck rule is too vague to enforce fairly, judge says

Baltimore’s ban on food trucks operating within 300 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant with a similar product is too vague to enforce, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The opinion by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Karen C. Friedman responded to a May 2016 lawsuit brought by food truck owners, who argued the rule unconstitutionally blocked competition and put them at an economic disadvantage. The case went to trial this past September.

In her decision, Friedman said that it was not unconstitutional for the city to regulate food trucks, but that the rule is so vague that “enforcement is likely to be subjective and arbitrary until the ordinance has been clarified by amendments.”

Robert Frommer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, one of the lawyers representing the owners of Pizza di Joey and Mindgrub Cafe, said the decision was a victory for Baltimore food trucks, but that they planned to appeal the decision because it does not go far enough to protect food truck operators.

“It’s the first step toward food truck freedom and we’re going to keep fighting until consumers, not City Hall, can decide where they get their lunch,” Frommer said. “We are planning to appeal because the Maryland Constitution clearly prohibits cities from making it a crime to compete just to line the pockets of a preferred constituent.”

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis said the city planned to ask the circuit court for reconsideration of the ruling and would appeal the decision if the court declines to revisit the case.

“The purpose of the ordinance is an attempt to achieve economic equity between competitors in the food business,” Davis said.

Typically, food trucks are less expensive to operate than a brick and mortar store and as a result can sell their food at a lower price that undercuts competition, Davis said.

As written, the rule prohibits a food truck from operating within 300 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant that is primarily engaged in selling the same type of food product or service.

Food truck operators argue that limiting where they can set up shop puts them at a disadvantage and favors brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“I’m happy that this ruling will let me operate more freely in the city, but I look forward to a day when laws like these no longer exist,” said Joey Vanoni, owner and operator of the Pizza di Joey food truck.

In calling the rule too vague, Friedman singled out the phrases “primarily engaged in” and “same type of food product” as being particularly ill defined.

While the city awaits word from the circuit court about whether it will reconsider the decision, Davis said he will also consult with Mayor Catherine Pugh and the city council about whether they want to try to strengthen the rule’s language.

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahgantz

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