The city came one step closer to realizing a new regulatory framework for monitoring New Haven’s food trucks, carts, and stands thanks to a vote following a three-hour public session at City Hall.
Before the vote Thursday night, some vendors told lawmakers they remain concerned about the unintended consequences that these regulations might have on the traffic safety of both their employees and their customers.
The Board of Alders Legislation Committee voted unanimously to approve a proposed ordinance containing the new regulations, which the city has been developing for over two years alongside Yale University, the Town Green Special Services District, and concerned stakeholders. The proposal now advances to the full Board of Alders for a final vote.
The ordinance aims to formalize the city’s oversight of the growing mobile vending industry through a few key provisions:
• The creation of four Special Vending Districts, which will carve out legal areas for food vending on Long Wharf, Cedar Street, Sachem Street, and downtown.
• The establishment of specific standards for vendor set up and operations, including requirements for publicly-accessible trash containers and prohibitions against selling food within 100 hundred feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
• The updating of the vendor application process and of the vendor annual license fees, requiring $1,000 per year for pushcarts or stands (which can only occupy sidewalks) and $2,500 a year for trucks or trailer carts (which can only occupy parking spaces).
• The hiring of a full-time vending enforcement officer, who will be responsible for enforcing vending regulations in all corners of the city, not just in the Special Vending Districts.
If approved by the full board, the ordinance would go into effect in the Downtown, Cedar Street, and Long Wharf Special Vending Districts on July 1. The same rules would go into effect in the Sachem Street Special Vending District on Aug. 15.
Much of the night’s conversation revolved around topics covered in a four-page document that city representatives from the Office of Economic Development (OED) and the Office of Building Inspection & Enforcement (OBIE) submitted in response to outstanding questions from a previous public hearing on the ordinance.
Towards the top of that document were questions about vendor permit fees. Namely, why does the city set the vendor permit fee at $200? And could the city reduce the vendor permit fee?
“Pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes Section 21-37, the City may set the fee at any dollar up to $200,” the document reads.
According to OBIE, the fees help cover the costs incurred during the processing of vendor permit applications, which includes copying documents, ensuring their validity, completing background checks, and issuing Photo ID badges.
While identifying the price of the permit fee as a revenue matter that would ultimately need to be decided upon by the Board of Alders and the mayor, OED and OPIE offered a concession to vendors concerned about being penalized for working in an industry that can have a high rate of employee turnover.
The city departments said that they would support a policy that would grant vendors one “free” permit application fee per year if they lost an employee within six months of hiring them. That way, vendors would not have to bear the burden of paying the permit fee twice in one year, even if they had to replace an employee soon after hiring them.
“I think it’s important for us to note that there is a cost to the city for making law and order, protecting public health, maintaining the proper flow of traffic, and generally running itself,” Westville Alder Adam Marchand (pictured) said in support of preserving the $200 permit fee, and of the ordinance more broadly.
“I am of course sympathetic to people who own small businesses, who don’t have huge reserves of capital to fall back on when the business is down. We want to make sure that the fees are not arbitrary, capricious, or way out of proportion to the costs that the city has to pay to regulate the activity. But clearly we have this burgeoning sector in our city that has gone pretty much unregulated, or at least under-regulated, and we’re trying to catch up with the situation that’s running ahead of us.”
Committee Chair Jessica Holmes of East Rock and Newhallville Alder Jeanette Morrison agreed, and resolved to formally ask OED and OBIE to put together a report a few months after the regulations go into effect to track any complaints or concerns. The city would then give testimony on that report during a public hearing, and the board would consider changes to the permit fee or to any of the other regulations that prove to be too cumbersome.
“Please, Safety First.”
During the public testimony section of the committee hearing, a handful of vendors spoke up in opposition to the proposed ordinance. Their concerns were not just financial, though they all did note that the new annual license fee would apply on top of a mandated $280 health department inspection fee in addition to the $200 vendor permit fee. Rather, most of their concerns were about safety, both for the vendors and for their customers.
“I’ve been selling food down at Long Wharf for 65 years,” said Robert Sweeney (pictured above), who runs a longstanding hot dog van in what would be the Long Wharf Special Vending District. “We’ve had very few accidents in that time, except for the drag racing. But since we had to move to a parking spot on the street three months ago, we’ve had 12 accidents. And it’s not even summer, which is the busy season for us! Money is one thing, but safety is more important than the few extra dollars you’re going to get from having a few extra trucks at Long Wharf. Please, consider the safety first. Don’t put the dollar up front.”
Victor Romero (pictured at left), who has been working for Sweeney for eight years, offered a similar plea. “Lately, we see so many accidents,” he said. “Something is not right. Something needs to be fixed.”
Sympathetic to the Long Wharf vendors’ concerns, Holmes promised to put pressure on the necessary city departments to further work towards ensuring pedestrian safety, even if those regulations fell outside of the purview of the ordinance under consideration.
“I think it’s important that we note that there are a number of issues that came up before us today that warrant further examinations, specifically around safety, how closely together the traffic spaces are at Long Wharf, and whether or not further traffic calming is needed in the streets,” she said. “Given Long Wharf’s proximity to the interstate exit, it sounds like there’s a lot of traffic calming required.”
“But these issues may be better managed through regulation than via ordinance,” she continued. “It’s not that these concerns aren’t valid. It’s just that this may not be the most appropriate venue in which to address them.”