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City Council backs new rules to expand food truck areas

The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would allow the city's growing food truck industry to operate in more places.

The rewritten bill is an about-face from an earlier version of the legislation, which sought to limit the vendors to specified "food truck zones." The bill backed Monday still would create new zones for the trucks but continue to allow them at meters on streets throughout the city.

Damian Bohager, president of the Maryland Mobile Food Vendors Association, said the group fought hard to make sure opportunities weren't limited.

"We were ready to go to war over that," Bohager said of a proposal to ban the trucks from selling outside designated zones. "The mayor has been good to the food trucks. We didn't want to threaten to sue an administration that is trying to help you."

The legislation is intentionally vague, according to Babila Lima, the project manager overseeing the effort for the city. It leaves many decisions up to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration, which would be charged with writing the regulations to implement the bill. For instance, the streets or city-owned lots that would constitute food truck zones have yet to be identified. Nor have details been released about a proposed lottery system to determine which trucks can go where.

Lima said city officials want to make sure current bricks-and-mortar restaurants are protected from competition.

"Our intent is not to harm any businesses in the city but to find a balance," he said.

Under current rules, the trucks can operate throughout the city but are forbidden to sell within 300 feet of an existing eatery. As a pilot program, the city has already designated nine so-called "food truck zones" where a group of trucks can cluster, such as near the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus and at the corner of Baltimore and Charles streets.

Additional zones are expected to be named under the new legislation. When trucks have been chosen by lottery to operate in those zones, other vendors will be banned from selling within two blocks.

Council members James Kraft and Mary Pat Clarke had sought to amend the bill to prohibit trucks from parts of their districts, including near O'Donnell Square in Canton and parts of Charles Village and Hampden. Their colleagues declined to adopt the amendments.

Rawlings-Blake has said the legislation is an effort to adopt comprehensive regulations for the industry, which has operated under the temporary rules since 2011. By setting up zones, she said, the city is trying to encourage the expansion of food trucks while eliminating tension between the trucks and traditional restaurants.

Bohager said he believes at least 15 zones will be approved by the city once the legislation gets final approval and the regulations are finalized.

The bill will allow trucks to operate in farmers' markets that want them, give them greater access to city parks and permit sales in empty lots owned by the city.

Clarke said she was upset with last-minute changes made to the bill after some council members worked over months to craft legislation that addressed concerns specific to certain neighborhoods. For example, Clarke said she had worked to block trucks from commercial areas in her district where parking is tight.

"We don't mind having food trucks — we think they're kind of fun and interesting — what we lack in my district is parking space," she said.

Bohager, too, was upset with some of the recent changes, such as eliminating an exception that would have allowed some trucks within 300 feet of restaurants in downtown Baltimore.

"It was a big part of what we were promised in the beginning of our negotiations," he said. "It was taken away from us at the 11th hour tonight."  

Even so, Bohager, whose organization has 30 members, said he was also glad to see that the bill allowed for late-night food truck vending.

"We got a lot of what we wanted," he said. "We're happy."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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