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Janesville probes residents for rules on mobile food trucks

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Neil Johnson
March 18, 2014

JANESVILLE—The city of Janesville could unveil potential new rules in April that would serve to regulate, license and allow mobile food trucks to operate in the city.

City staff is moving forward on crafting ordinance changes that would apply to mobile food vendors and provide an outline for where they could operate in the city. Those rules would face scrutiny by the city's plan commission, face at least one public hearing, possibly in May, and would require council approval. 

But residents at a public input session Tuesday at the Janesville Municipal Building showed a mostly favorable response to easing restrictions. The city planned the session as the first step to decide whether it should and how to modify its rules.

Gale Price, building and development services manager for the city, led Tuesday's session. Price outlined how city rules would need to change to allow vendors to operate, and he probed residents for ideas and what changes they would like to see.

Price said the city sought input from the public before crafting potential ordinance changes because “it makes the ordinance (changes) and the community better if we get the input up front.”

Mobile food trucks have faced an uphill fight because city zoning codes and ordinances bar them from parking in public areas, and the city has no specific licensing provisions for them.

The city allows bicycle and cart vendors who sell pre-packaged foods, but it outlawed mobile food trucks after a young girl was struck and killed chasing an ice cream truck in 1983.

Most of residents at Tuesday's meeting—including a few seeking to run their own mobile food business—were supportive of the city crafting ordinance changes.

“I do think it (the rules) should be more open, but I think everyone that does want to do it should have to operate by the rules of a brick and mortar restaurant, said Chad Measner, a Janesville resident and mobile food truck operator. "I don't want to see a bunch of roach coaches...where the rules aren't enforced."

Measner has had trouble getting footing for his upstart Cajun food truck because of existing city rules. He has had to stay parked in a privately owned parking lot and take customer payments inside a nearby business because rules don't let him take cash payments from his truck. 

Janesville residents Marci and Shawn McCarten said they plan to open a soft-serve ice cream shop in their bait and tackle store along the Ice Age Trail near the Monterey Dam.

The McCartens said they chose the location of the shop because it was close to the trail, and they envisioned getting trail traffic hungry for ice cream.

With a change in the ordinances, they said, a mobile ice cream vendor could feasibly be allowed to park in the public parking area next to their business and poach their customers.

“We welcome competition,” Marci McCarten said. “But not right outside our door.”

Price suggested the city could look at other municipal guidelines to create a space buffer that mobile vendors would have to keep between their business and bricks-and-mortar restaurants.

Other ideas people brought up at Tuesday's session included:

-- A potential designated location downtown where multiple mobile food vendors could gather one night a week, similar to a farmers market.

-- Allowing food vendors to sell in city parks or near city trails.

-- Potentially barring mobile food vendors from certain streets or parking areas during city events where traffic and parking is already tricky. Examples would be the Fourth of July event at Traxler Park or the Rock County 4-H Fair.

-- Price suggested the city also ponder whether mobile vendors could park along streets, in public lots or in residential areas.

Fees required by the Rock County Health Department for licensing and inspection of food cost upwards of $500 to $700 a year if a vendor wanted to operate a full-service food truck along with an offsite kitchen or commissary, Rock County Environmental Health Director Tim Banwell said.

Price said the city has to try to recoup some costs of vetting applications for licenses, but he said he doesn't believe the city would recommend a licensing fee so high it wouldn't be economical for mobile food vendors.



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