It's been nearly 25 years since Bel Air experienced a tempest in a teapot over whether hot dog vendors would be allowed to sell their wares on the streets of town.
After plenty of back and forth, hot dog vendors eventually were allowed to push their carts into the town limits and, from time to time, one or two have been in operation around the Harford County Courthouse and the Mary E. W. Risteau State Office Building, where the District Court is located.
In retrospect, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about, and why the town felt so obliged to involve itself. Hot dog carts, like all other commercial food vending operations, are subject to health department regulations and inspections.
Bel Air was never overrun with hot dog carts, nor was the county seat ever in much danger of seeing its lunch counter trade diminished. Indeed, there are more eateries in town now than there were when hot dog carts seemed like they should be cause for concern.
In recent weeks, the town government has twisted itself into pretzels over a similar issue: the regulation of food trucks in the town limits. Food trucks, for those unfamiliar, have become something of a craze in urban cuisine. The seemingly oxymoronic nomenclature "gourmet food truck" has largely replaced the more common old school moniker "roach coach" and food trucks in many places do thriving businesses.
Some communities, Bel Air included, have seen fit to regulate where food trucks can park and sell their wares..
Municipal governments stand to gain a bit of revenue by requiring food truck licensing, which is reasonable considering lunch counters and other eateries are obliged to pay their fair share of taxes and fees. Nevertheless, town officials say fees are scaled to cover the cost of regulating them, not to produce a revenue windfall.
More importantly, however, food trucks have the potential to be more than a little bit disruptive to established traditional restaurants operating out of buildings. While it could be argued that subjecting food trucks to special regulation isn't fair, there's also a prescient argument that restaurants are subject to substantially more regulation than food trucks. Allowing the mobile businesses to operate unchecked gives them an unfair competitive advantage over businesses that are firmly rooted in the community.
Is it really fair to allow a food truck to show up in town and set up shop right in front of a restaurant that has been in place for years? The new ordinance approved by the Board of Town Commissioners Monday largely precludes this from happening, but then again it also pushes the mobile businesses into areas where restaurants aren't necessarily allowed under town zoning. Is that fair to the people living in those neighborhoods, or to the bricks and mortar eateries precluded from operating there?
Still, it remains to be seen if concerns about food trucks are well founded.
If the hot dog cart debates of a quarter of a century ago are any indication, perhaps the impact of food trucks will be limited.