Fort Smith officials hear ideas on changing mobile food vendor regs

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 196 views 

An effort by Fort Smith city officials to update mobile food vendor regulations that one city official says are “antiquated” and “too restrictive” is welcomed by such vendors and a majority of downtown Fort Smith property owners who participated in a recent survey on the issue.

Wally Bailey, director of development services for Fort Smith, said during a public hearing held Monday (Feb. 23) by the Fort Smith Planning Commission that the city’s rules are more restrictive than most cities, and certainly more so than rules among a group of eight cities he and other city staffers have reviewed. The cities reviewed are Bentonville, College Station, Texas, Fayetteville, Lee’s Summit, Mo., Little Rock, and Tulsa. College Station and Lee’s Summit were reviewed because of similar population, Bailey said.

Fort Smith has 29 food vendors with permits, but not all of those are active.

About 25 attended Monday’s hearing, during which Bailey outlined key provisions to be considered for a possible ordinance change. Also, a new ordinance would primarily address rules for the “C-6” zoning district in downtown Fort Smith. Mobile food vendors – trucks and trailers – have not been allowed in downtown Fort Smith since 1993. Those key areas are:
• Regulations within various zoning districts;
• Length of permits;
• Products/foods permitted;
• Permit fees;
• Types of vehicles permitted/allowed; and
• Relocation requirements/flexibility.

The city mailed 188 surveys to property owners in the C-6 zoning district of downtown Fort Smith, and 64 were returned – a respectable 34% for polling purposes. Of those, 77% said mobile food vendors should be allowed in downtown, with 67% saying mobile food vendors should be required to keep a certain distance away from other restaurants. Also, 56% of those surveyed said they were OK with mobile food vendors operating from public spaces, such as parking lots.

As to length of permits, Bailey said there is interest by the city staff and the Planning Commission in extending the 120-day permit to 180-days.

Micah Bubbus, owner of Patrick’s Burgers, questioned why the city is limiting vendors in downtown Fort Smith.

“I don’t understand why C-6 zoning is any different than (a mobile food vendor) on Rogers Avenue near Outback,” Bubbus said.

Bubbus, who recently opened a physical location in the GreenPointe Shopping Center, also questioned the need for rules on how close mobile food vendors can operate near an existing brick-and-mortar restaurant. He said when he opened his physical location, there was no guarantee that a restaurant could not some day open in a space next to his. Operating a physical location and a mobile truck, Bubbus said he sees “both sides to the story,” and doesn’t think one type of restaurant should get preference over another.

He also challenged Planning Commission members and the city staff to consider a one-year permit for mobile truck vendors who have an agreement with a private land owner. Bubbus used his relationship with the Harp’s grocery store on 74th Street as an example.

“If I and Harp’s agree … why am I messing with it (permitting) every four months?” Bubbus asked the panel.

Bubbus also praised city staff and the Planning Commission for reviewing the rules.

“I’m glad y’all are being proactive on this. … I appreciate that and I think it’s great,” he said.

Tasha Taylor said she hoped C-6 is opened up because she wants to open a food truck business that provides service after hours when many restaurants are closed in downtown Fort Smith. Cheryl Norton, with GR8 Cup Coffee Plus, asked the panel to consider a transfer fee within the 120- or 180-day permitted operation. She explained that sometimes the dynamic of a location changes, and instead of acquiring another expensive permit, the vendor should be allowed to pay a much smaller “transfer fee.”

Bailey and the Planning Commission were also asked to consider a rule change for owners of a mobile food truck who operate the truck on property they own.

Bailey told The City Wire after the meeting that he and the Commission heard “some really good questions today.” The Planning Commission will conduct a study session on March 3, with a voting meeting set for March 10. Bailey said the issue will be discussed at those meetings, but does not anticipate a Planning Commission vote on a new ordinance for several more weeks. It’s his goal to have an ordinance approved by the Planning Commission and to the Fort Smith Board of Directors within 90 days.