News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 17, 2018
Stonington parking committee pans food truck idea

by Rich Hewitt

A reconstituted parking committee has taken a dim view of the idea of allowing food trucks to operate in town.

According to the minutes of its meeting last month, which were circulated May 7 at the regular selectmen’s meeting, the committee members rejected the idea of food trucks on Main Street altogether, citing several concerns that selectmen already had discussed. The selectmen had reformed the parking committee—which previously had studied the parking issues in the downtown—and charged it with assessing the possibility of food trucks in town considering especially the impact on parking, health and safety.

“After a short discussion,” the minutes read, “the overwhelming consensus was that if food trucks are to be allowed on public property, inside the ball field is the only feasible place for them.”

The committee recommended that if food trucks are allowed, the town should adopt regulations regarding trash disposal, hours of operation, prohibition of overnight parking, and a requirement for payment of a local mobile business tax. Public safety was another concern and, according to the minutes, “it was felt that food trucks would cause additional traffic congestion, particularly on West Main.”

The committee also saw food trucks as unfair competition to other town businesses. “…the feeling of most was that food trucks are unfair to ‘brick and mortar’ business owners who must maintain their properties as well as pay local property tax, water and sewer fees.”

Selectman John Robbins suggested that was simply competition, a comment which irked Ron Watson, the owner of the Stonington Ice Cream Company, which, in addition to ice cream also sells sandwiches.

“I don’t mind competition, but it’s not a level playing field,” he said, noting, as the committee did, that he has to pay taxes, water and sewer costs. “They get to compete without those costs.”

Watson also pointed out that although he is probably the smallest food business in town, he still has five or six employees, mostly “local kids.”

If the selectmen decide to permit food trucks, he urged them to require the vendors carry insurance and to adopt health code regulations and a fee structure that “reflects the value of being allowed to do business here.”

Selectmen agreed and Town Manager Kathleen Billings said there already has been some consideration of what type of vendor fee the town might require. She said that something similar to the $5,000 dealer fee charged on the fish pier might be appropriate.

“We’re not going to give it away cheap,” she said.

Selectmen took the committee’s concerns to heart, but several still expressed interest in finding a place for food trucks to operate. Donna Brewer pointed out that in allowing dealers to set up on the fish pier, the town already had opened the door to other commercial enterprises operating on town property.

John Steed liked the idea partly because it would provide a wider variety of food choices in town. In addition, he suggested food trucks offered an opportunity for economic development.

“This might bring more people to town, make the town more of a destination,” he said.

Robbins suggested the fish pier might be a potential site for food trucks to operate. With the consent of the other selectmen, he planned to discuss the idea with the town’s harbor committee Tuesday night, May 8.

The problem with the fish pier is the same as on Main Street, according to Billings. Food trucks take up space. If they park on Main Street, that eliminates one parking space. The same is true on the fish pier, she said.

“And if we lose one parking space, somebody is going to be unhappy,” she said.

Although Billings told selectmen they did not need to make a decision that night, she stressed that they did have to take some action because right now, there is no town regulation that regulates food trucks at all. The town has no health, noise, sanitary regulations that would apply to a food truck if one came to town, she said.

“If someone came in and took up a parking space, there’s not a lot we can do about it,” she said. “Parking is regulated on the fish pier, but we don’t have anything that bans anything.”

Only the parking regulations adopted last year, which set a four hour parking limit on Main Street, would apply to a food truck, as it does for any other vehicle.