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Maryland’s highest court rules against food trucks, upholds Baltimore City’s ’300-foot rule’

Pizza di Joey's Alyssa La Regina-Vanoni calls out an order.
Pizza di Joey's Alyssa La Regina-Vanoni calls out an order. (By Matthew Cole / Capital Gazette)

Maryland’s highest court ended a four-year legal battle over food trucks Monday by upholding a previous ruling to keep Baltimore’s “300-foot rule.”

The court said the law, which prohibits mobile vendors from operating within 300 feet of a competing retail establishment, is constitutional because it is not “arbitrary, oppressive or unreasonable.”

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“The City acted rationally when it balanced the competing interests of mobile vendors and brick-and-mortar restaurants and enacted the 300-foot rule to further its legitimate interest in promoting the vibrancy of its commercial districts,” Judge Jonathan Biran wrote in the court’s opinion.

Baltimore food truck owners Joey Vanoni, of Pizza di Joey, and Nikki McGowan, of Madame BBQ (now known as MindGrub Café), first contested the ban four years ago in a lawsuit. The suit alleged the city law prohibiting food trucks from operating close to that sells the same product violated their constitutional rights.

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The lawsuit argued that the rule’s only purpose was to protect brick-and-mortar businesses from competition.

For Vanoni, who recently opened up a pizza shop in Federal Hill’s Cross Street Market, the law continues to be a source of frustration.

“I can’t park my own food truck outside of here and sell pizza,” he said. “There’s two other pizzerias right across the street that I can see from my window.”

Vanoni said he opened up his own shop as a result of success outside of Baltimore City — in Anne Arundel County.

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“I sell pizza. It’s one of most popular foods in the world, let alone in America. There’s pizzerias everywhere,” he said. “My business was exceptionally limited here in Baltimore City.”

Dana Moore, acting Baltimore City solicitor, called the decision “really good news,” saying it affirms the city’s efforts to balance the needs of mobile businesses, like food trucks, with those of restaurants.

“The legislation was designed simply to assure a peaceful cooperative coexistence between brick-and-mortar restaurants and the food trucks that are able to be obviously highly mobile and set up in a lot of different places,” Moore said.

In a statement, the Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association said the city’s law tips the scales in favor of restaurants.

“As Food Truck owners, we encounter many obstacles on a daily basis due to being mobile, not to even begin mentioning the licenses needed to operate on a county by county level, having restrictions on top of it, especially ones that are vague, makes it even harder to serve our customers,” the statement read.

Drew Pumphrey, owner of Smoking Swine, a barbecue food truck and restaurant, said the city’s law remains too vague.

“If I set up within 300 feet of a place that serves sandwiches, let’s say, well, I also serve sandwiches. So am I a competing cuisine?” Pumphrey said. “The benefit factor on this sways far too wide towards the restaurants and leaves far too little on the table for the food trucks.”

The law states that mobile vendors can’t set up within 300 feet of a store “primarily engaged in selling the same type of food product.”

Last year, Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian overturned a lower court’s ruling that declared the ban too vague to enforce.

The Baltimore City Council passed the 300-foot rule into law in 2014. The rule applies to all mobile vendors, not just food trucks, and violators can face $500 fines and the revocation of their mobile vendor’s license.

But no mobile vendor had received a citation or had its license suspended due to the 300-foot rule, according to the court’s decision. The city has enforced the law by asking food trucks to relocate or change their menus to avoid conflicts with brick-and-mortar businesses, the decision read.

The court said that while the food truck owners see the rule as an infringement on their rights, the court sees it “simply as democracy in action.”

The Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Robert Frommer, who represented Vanoni and McGowan, said in a news release that the courts should have taken the impact of the coronavirus into consideration. The defense attorney said food trucks still can’t operate, even if a nearby restaurant is temporarily closed.

“At a time when Americans are struggling to get by and food options are growing more limited each day, Baltimore has been allowed to put further limits on food options to protect established restaurants and businesses,” Frommer said. “The city’s 300-foot ban makes even less sense today as lockdowns in response to COVID-19 force restaurants to operate more like food trucks, often dispensing food rather than allowing diners to eat in.”

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