The Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance Monday that allows food trucks and other mobile vendors to operate within the town limits for the first time.
The unanimous vote by the five commissioners at a regular town meeting came after a public hearing attended by about a dozen people, five of whom spoke in favor of the ordinance and two from the traditional restaurant trade who appeared resigned to its passage.
Eriksson Hill, a town resident who has a food truck business, said he had approached town officials about relaxing the ban and praised them for their positive response.
"This is something I've wanted to do for a long time," Hill said, emphasizing that he will have "a very serious commercial kitchen on wheels," while emphasizing that food trucks will complement rather than hurt the town's restaurant trade.
"We are in no way here to impede your business; we are sensitive to the restaurant business," he said, at one pointing noting that "the pie is big enough."
"We are going to bring excitement to town, not take anyone's business from them," said Wayne Abrams, another town resident, who said he has been in the food truck business for 20 years and works with his father and his son.
Abrams said food trucks like his "will bring exciting new food trends" to Bel Air. He also said food trucks are one of the top three trends in the country, based on twitter trending.
"We want to serve food and sell to the people of Bel Air and keep the dollars in Bel Air," he added.
Echoing Abrams' comments about the growing popularity of food trucks was Damian Bohager, representing the Maryland Mobile Food Vendors Association, who said food trucks are "the fastest growing segment of the food industry."
Bohager said his organization has 30 members and is growing rapidly. He briefly discussed the operation of food trucks in Baltimore City, where he said there are designated parking areas for them, and pointed out that many food trucks and trailers represent investments of $50,000 to $100,000 or more and most serve high quality cuisine worthy of a more traditional restaurant.
He also said the food trucks have to pass health and safety code inspections and that their owners "pay all the taxes except property taxes."
"It's fantastic, a wonderful experience," said Tom Arno of Fallston, who operates Cruisin' Cafe, mostly in Baltimore County. Arno said he looks forward to being able to come into Bel Air and, like the others, said his intent would be to offer consumers more choice in Bel Air.
Richard Lynch, owner of Buontempo Brothers on Main Street, praised the town planning staff and other officials for listening to his concerns and those of others in the town's restaurant trade.
Out of those concerns came a redrawing of a map that designates where food trucks can operate, essentially shutting them out of the downtown area along Main and Bond streets, but allowing them around parks, churches and in the southwestern quarter of town around the shopping centers, MVA, Home Depot and Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.
Even where the trucks will be allowed to set up, however, they'll have to have permission of the property owner to use a private property like a parking lot. In addition, there are very few streets, even in the MVA and hospital area, where they will actually be allowed to park and serve customers.
"We're here to work together," Lynch said.
There was much more back and forth when the discussion turned to a companion resolution which sets higher fees for the mobile vendors – referred to as "itinerant dealers" in the ordinance – and for solicitors and peddlers.
Both Bridget Lloyd, manager at Magerks Pub & Grill and Lynch questioned if the new fees – $240 for up to 90 days or $400 for one year – are equitable, given the amount of property taxes their establishments pay the town, Lloyd saying the food trucks would not be paying "a ton of taxes."
The truck operators, however, said that if fees are too high it will either discourage them from coming into town at all or, in the words of one, cause them to concentrate only on Bel Air, thus causing more competition for the restaurants.
"The fees should be appropriate, not excessive," Lynch said. The resolution setting the new fees also passed unanimously.
Several commissioners said both during the vote and after the town meeting that they were a little bit surprised there was not more opposition. Several also noted they really had not heard from any food truck operators before Monday.
Commissioner Susan Burdette, who had earlier said she wanted to hear from supporters and opponents, praised local media coverage of the issue and said she "didn't get any opposition back."
This story has been updated can corrected from a previous version which misidentified Richard Lynch. He is owner of Buontempo Brothers.