DEL MAR — City Council adopted an urgency ordinance at the Nov. 19 meeting that places a temporary moratorium on issuing business licenses to food trucks, a move that could potentially end the Wednesday night gatherings and result in a lawsuit, the event organizer said.
“If a moratorium is going to be put on the food trucks in terms of issuing new business licenses, we see that as a ban to food trucks, which goes directly against state code, and we’ll immediately take legal action,” said Christian Murcia, who in addition to starting the event owns two of the six trucks that currently hold business licenses to operate in Del Mar.
He said attorneys for the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association were made aware of the council decision the following day “and they will be contacting the city.”
“If this ordinance is passed I can probably see that the food truck gathering may not continue through the wintertime,” Murcia added.
Right after the Wednesday night gatherings began Oct. 10 in the Seagrove parking lot at 1601 Coast Blvd., city staff received emails and phone calls asking about the legality of the event and raising concerns about everything from competition with existing restaurants to impacts on public safety.
As a result, at the Oct. 22 meeting, council members directed the city attorney to develop an urgency ordinance.
In the interim, staff asked restaurant operators in the city for “any quantifiable information on business trends that have been noticed in their restaurants since the … food truck event began.” Four responded.
The general manager of Jake’s, which is across the street from the parking lot, noted a 15 percent decline in business since the food trucks arrived.
Tom Ranglas from Poseidon, also across the street from the event, said it was hard to determine the effects during the winter months but he expected a decline in the summer at the restaurant and snack bar.
Daniel Schreiber from Del Mar Rendezvous also said it was difficult right now to determine any loss in sales.
Dan Sbicca, owner of the eponymous restaurant, didn’t cite sales numbers but said he, like his colleagues, didn’t support the event.
City Attorney Leslie Devaney said state law precludes cities from banning the trucks because they may add competition to brick-and-mortar establishments.
Council members at the November meeting said they adopted the 45-day maximum moratorium to give staff more time to study the public safety issues such as restroom availability, parking, lighting, noise, odors, trash and pedestrian safety.
They also said they would like to develop regulations for all outdoor mobile vending services, including those that sell clothing or offer games for birthday parties, because it is a growing business trend nationwide.
Murcia said after reading the staff report, the focus seemed to be more about unfair competition to local restaurants, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t feel we’re in local competition,” he said. “It’s a completely different demographic that we’re appealing to. The trucks that are there aren’t making money anyway.”
Although six trucks are licensed to operate, not all have shown up other than for the first event. Murcia said he tried to attract new truck owners but they are hesitant to spend money on a business license that will expire at the end of December.
He also noted that because the licenses expire in about five weeks, with the 45-day moratorium no trucks will be authorized to do business after Jan. 1.
“I don’t think we’ll get a good idea of what the food truck gathering will be like,” he said.
Murcia also submitted to the city a report from the Institute for Justice that outlined seven myths about food trucks, which included a finding that they actually help rather than hurt local businesses.
Murcia also said many of the public safety issues raised are already covered by city laws.
Councilman Terry Sinnott disagreed. “(This) is so new to the community that our existing ordinances … may not apply,” he said.
The city is also considering an impact fee to cover expenses such as trash pickup and public restroom use for truck patrons.
The only person other than Murcia to address council was Councilman-elect Al Corti.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea in Del Mar,” he said. “It also schlocks up the beach.” He said the city should take the time now to examine the impacts before the business grows.
“You may find out in the summer there’s 20 trucks down there,” he said.
Murcia said he didn’t expect to be there in the summer months. “We were specifically approached to extract money for the parking lot owners during the offseason,” he said.
The moratorium could be extended for up to one year but Devaney said she didn’t recommend doing that.
“I would really encourage us not to overregulate,” Sinnott said. “We can’t address competition. That’s not our role.” He added the city is responsible for ensuring the trucks are operating safely.
Councilman Mark Filanc said trash and restroom use are probably the two major issues.