Steve s Jamaican Food  food truck stands outside the Amer­ica s Best Inns & Suites on Putney Road. Barbara and Steve Nichols have been running the truck
Steve s Jamaican Food food truck stands outside the Amer­ica s Best Inns & Suites on Putney Road. Barbara and Steve Nichols have been running the truck since last summer. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Tuesday June 18, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Over the past few years the number of food trucks in Brattleboro has increased and on any given day a hungry customer can get a hot dog, a maple syrup shake or food from Jamaica, Vietnam or Thailand.

But if you are looking for some zoning ordinances to go with your banh mi they can't be found.

Now the Planning Commission is cooking up a recipe to fix that.

The Brattleboro Planning Commission is proposing amendments to the zoning ordinance to define food carts and mobile food units and also to regulate how the food stands can be set up on private property.

Under the new ordinance vendors would have to apply for an annual town permit to operate their carts.

A public hearing is scheduled for June 24 at 7:15 p.m. in the Selectboard Meeting Room to gather comments on the proposed ordinance.

"We are seeing more interest in mobile food units all over the country, and there are more of them in Brattleboro now than ever before," said Brattleboro Planning Director Rod Francis. "Right now we have nothing in our ordinance and the Planning Commission feels like the town should have some control over how they are operated."

Francis said the proposed ordinance does not address health standards concerning food service. Those are handled by the state.

Nor does the proposed ordinance change any of the existing zoning rules for public spaces, such as sidewalks, which are already regulated.

The new ordinance would attempt to protect pedestrians and drivers, Francis says, by establishing parking, signage, trash receptacle, right-of-way and site-line standards.

It also allows restaurants as a permitted use in the industrial zone, which would pave the way for mobile food carts to set up in industrial zones.

Francis said the issue arose as the town was looking at Chapter 11 in the zoning ordinance and it became apparent that there were not any regulations governing the semi-permanent structures which are typically set up for seven or eight months of the year.

If a property owner wants to build a permanent deck or shed a permit is needed and Francis said the planning commission wanted to give the town some authority to protect the public when food stands and mobile carts settle down for the season.

"Restaurant owners need to get a business license and one of the reasons for establishing an ordinance is to make sure everyone is treated the same way," Francis said.

Under the proposed rule, the zoning administrator would approve the permits.

The zoning administrator would visit the site and determine if the food stand met the requirements of the ordinance.

If the permit is rejected the applicant would be able to appeal the decision to the Development Review Board.

Planning Commission Chairman James Valente said the commission worked hard to set up the new ordinance to try to protect the public while not discouraging entrepreneurs from coming to Brattleboro.

Valente said the commission also debated the differences between semi-permanent structures, and those that come to town for a weekend event, such as The Strolling of the Heifers.

That debate, he said, is still not settled and the commission is going to figure out if any new rules are needed for food cart owners who only set up in town for a day or two.

"It's a challenge to come up with an ordinance that addresses the concerns about semi-permanent structures without burdening potential weekend vendors," Valente said. "There was a feeling on the board that this issue was pressing, and that we needed to do something now while making sure people who were not putting down roots had more freedom."

Valente also said with more food stands opening the commission wanted to protect the permanent business owners who have to apply for a business license and adhere to town standards and rules.

"All of a sudden here is another subcategory that is not subjected to any of our laws and so we are trying to address that," Valente said. "Right now it's like the Wild West out there and we want everyone to play by the same rules."

After the June 24 hearing, if there are not any major changes, the proposed ordinance would go before the Selectboard, where it would receive another reading before a final vote by the Selectboard.

The ordinance would then go into effect after 21 days.

Francis said the zoning administrator would walk around town and reach out to the food stand operators to encourage them to apply for the new permits if the ordinance is approved by the Selectboard.

The permits would be active through July 1, when the owner would have to reapply for another season.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.