Standing room-only crowd for Bel Air food truck hearing

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There were impassioned arguments on both sides of an ongoing debate over food trucks and their potential impact on brick-and-mortar restaurants in the Town of Bel Air during a public hearing Monday evening. The hearing was on an ordinance that would expand the areas where food trucks can park and serve customers.

“We have issues with where we can park, where we can obtain a license and operate,” said Nicole Youse, who with her husband, Brian, owns Crossroads Bistro Food Truck and Catering, of Sparrows Point in Baltimore.

A rare standing-room-only crowd filled the town commissioners’ meeting room Monday in Bel Air Town Hall. The hearing on Ordinance 786-18, amending the municipal code on itinerant dealers, peddlers and solicitors, lasted more than an hour.

With two of five town board members out sick, the three members present postponed a vote until their next meeting in May. Commissioners Brendan Hopkins and Patrick Richards, as well as Town Administrator Jesse Bane, were out sick, according to Mayor Susan Burdette.

Food truck operators made pleas for the town to provide more space where they can operate.

The proposed ordinance change comes out of a request by AleCraft Brewery to allow food trucks on its property in the 300 block of South Main Street.

Owners of downtown Bel Air restaurants and other businesses expressed concerns about tilting the playing field in favor of an industry they said does not have the same overhead costs as brick-and-mortar businesses.

The town has created a number of “blue zones” on public and private property throughout Bel Air where food truck operators can do business, provided they have a permit from the town and permission from the property owner, according to Michael Krantz, the town’s director of administration and human resources.

The town also permits food trucks to park along public streets in some limited locations. The closest of these “red curb” areas to downtown are along Lee Way near the Armory and Shamrock Park, and near the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail trailhead along Ellendale, Maulsby and Williams streets. Other red curb locations are along Gateway Drive and Blum Court near Harford Mall and the post office; West MacPhail Road near Upper Chesapeake Medical Center; Route 1 and Kelly Avenue extended (where a Chick-fil-A is planned); and along South Atwood Road near the Motor Vehicle Administration.

The ordinance change, if approved, would allow food trucks to operate on private property in the 300 block of South Main Street, between Baltimore Pike and Powell Avenue, and on the town-owned Bel Air Armory property, adjoining private businesses and the municipal parking lot at Pennsylvania Avenue.

Bel Air attorney Bradley Stover, representing the owners of Looney’s Pub, which is across the street from AleCraft, said brick-and-mortar business operators like Looney’s are “well into a six-figure venture” covering the costs of leasing or buying property, designing and building out their establishment, clearing regulatory hurdles, securing capital, insurance, employees, supplies and other needs.

“That tends to encourage people to be serious about what they’re doing,” Stover said.

He said the investment in a food truck “is just simply much lower, and it’s not on the same scale.”

Food truck operators disputed that contention, though, saying they had similar startup costs, and they must go through extensive inspections.

“If you break it down to square footage, I can guarantee you my investment is greater in my mobile crab cake company than it was in my restaurant,” said Bel Air resident Jo Harding-Gordon, owner of the mobile Flash Crabcake Company and the former owner of the defunct JoMomma's Steak & Seafood restaurant.

She said she builds her trucks to Harford County Health Department specifications “because they’re the toughest in this state.”

Renato Buontempo, co-owner of the Main Street Tower — which has made a major investment to build a second story — and the Buontempo Bros. pizza shop, said he likes food trucks, but encouraged town officials to allow them in select areas, such as a park, and only on select days so they do not interfere with downtown businesses.

Buontempo Bros. is at Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the municipal parking lot.

“Fifty, 100 [trucks,] I will come, too,” Buontempo said. “Make it a special event, but not where there is normal business.”

AleCraft has been operating a taproom, where the public can sample its craft beers, in a section of the Preston’s Stationery building at 319 S. Main St. since December 2017. It is the second craft brewery to open in Bel Air, after Independent Brewing Co. opened in a former auto shop at the opposite end of town on North Main Street in 2015.

Food trucks operate on a regular basis on the Independent Brewing property.

Robert Preston, a former town commissioner, whose family has operated the stationery business in downtown Bel Air since the 1920s and who is AleCraft’s landlord, said he understands the concerns of neighboring business owners. He said food trucks on his business’ property would be “more of an advantage than a disadvantage,” though.

“I think on our particular property it would certainly enhance AleCraft, and it would give us a situation where we’re not having issues with other restaurants,” Preston said.

Commissioner Amy Chmielewski made a motion to postpone a vote until the next town meeting on May 7, which was approved 3-0.

Commissioner Philip Einhorn thanked the speakers and audience for remaining civil during the hearing, saying they had “just been a terrific audience tonight.”

Chmielewski said she had listened to all concerns, that she supports nearly everyone who spoke, but she also supports local neighborhoods.

“I hope you guys respect whatever decision we make,” she said.

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