Bel Air is considering changes to its peddlers and itinerant dealers law to give food trucks and other mobile vendors an entree to some parts of town.
The five town commissioners and the town department heads discussed proposed changes to the law during a work session at town hall late Tuesday afternoon.
The way the law is written, Planning Director Kevin Small explained, food trucks and other mobile businesses are barred from operating in the town limits. Section 272-7 of the town code states that no person shall "sell merchandise of any kind from parked motor vehicles."
Small is proposing that mobile vendors be allowed to operate in certain commercial and high-density residential areas, as well as around parks, under some conditions.
"We've had some requests from food truck operators," Small said following the work session. "We do feel there's a demand for more eating opportunities in some parts of town."
Economic Development Director Trish Heidenreich said food trucks are gaining cachet with many office workers, noting many such vendors offer "gourmet" fare. Small agreed, adding: "We're not talking about hot dogs."
Earlier, Small told the commissioners that the Bel Air Downtown Alliance has expressed support for the change in the law, even though the food trucks would theoretically compete with existing restaurants.
"I tend to believe the more you get, the more business happens," he said.
Small showed the commissioners a color-coded map laying out where food trucks and other mobile vendors would be allowed to operate. Most residential neighborhoods would be off-limits, as would the restaurant district around Main and Bond streets and some downtown side streets.
Small also said that while vendors could set up shop around parks and play fields, they would have to be at least 300 feet away from any parks and recreation sanctioned event, such as the annual Festival for the Arts in Shamrock Park, where some of the commissioners noted there have been issues in the past with rouge vendors who set up shop outside the festival.
Police would also have discretion to move vendors if they are causing a safety problem, such as children crossing dangerous streets to get to them. Small explained, however, that a drink or ice cream vendor would be able to set up near a ball field.
Licensing fees would also be raised geometrically from current levels, so an itinerant dealer will be paying $60 every 90 days instead of every six months, or $230 a year. A peddler's license would cost $120 a year.
Several commissioners questioned Small about the mobile vendors causing unfair competition to traditional brick and mortar retailers, most of whom either directly or indirectly pay taxes to the town that far outstrip the revenue the town gets from a mobile vending license.
Small replied the intent to limit their activities outside of the downtown area should remove any such objections, including from restaurant owners.
Small said the biggest demands for food truck services come from areas where there are a number of people working and few eating activities within walking distance, such as the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center campus and The Home Depot.
As a result of the different comments Small received Tuesday, he said he would be making a few changes to the ordinance before it is introduced to the commissioners at the town meeting Monday, Dec. 3. A public hearing on the ordinance would be held at the Dec. 17 town meeting.
Open space fee
Also slated for introduction Monday is a resolution to impose a set fee for the developers unable to meet the town's requirement that their projects set aside a certain percentage of land for active and passive open space. These fees in lieu of meeting the land requirement set-aside would be $50,000 per acre.
Though Small said the fee sounds high, he pointed out that for a 10-acre residential project, which is unlikely to happen anywhere inside the 3-square mile town limits, a developer would be required to set aside one acre for passive open space and four-tenths of an acre (40 percent) for active open space such as a playground.
More realistically, he explained, a typical project would involve a set-aside of a tenth or two-tenths of an acre. He said the planning commission has discretion in how these set-asides are made, giving the example of a mixed-use project "when an indoor exercise room can meet the active space requirement."
Small also pointed out the planning commission likewise has discretion to reject efforts by a developer to pay the fee, if the commission believes suitable land is available to meet the set-aside.
Also on the schedule for the town meeting Dec. 3 is a public hearing on changes to the noise ordinance that will give police authority to cite bars and other businesses for violations, if they observe vibrations causing damage to or disturbing occupants of nearby properties. The town meeting begins at 7:30 p.m.