Keene’s sensible proposed regulations for mobile vendors — food trucks — once again got the nod from the City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development panel Wednesday, and will head back to the full council, presumably next week.
The overhauled rules already passed the council earlier this month, but were then retracted and sent back in the process so Councilor Randy Filiault can again attempt to push through an amendment allowing the food trucks to operate at any hour of the day or night.
The council came within a vote of allowing just that on its first go-round. Instead, the proposed regulations now call for food trucks to cease operating at 10 p.m. (11 p.m. during daylight savings), in accordance with the city’s noise ordinance. Operators could seek permission from the council to operate later.
The councilors stumping for unlimited hours argued it would be unwieldy to enforce late-night hours — an unfounded presumption — and that the city noise ordinance would protect residents from undo yelling, generator noise and such. As it turns out, both claims are incorrect.
Several city department heads made the case against lifting the time restrictions Wednesday. John Rogers, Keene’s building and health officer, and Police Chief Steven Russo both spoke against having unlimited hours. If both the police chief and code enforcement director say exemptions are a good idea, then we have to believe they feel enforcement of those exemptions would not be a problem. This is, after all, Keene and not Los Angeles. The number of vendors operating late at night wouldn’t be so high that a passing police officer wouldn’t be able to check their license — assuming the police didn’t already have a list of who can operate legally and where.
Rogers also said having vendors seek an exemption for later hours gives the city the chance to review their plan and make sure it’s safe. City Clerk Patricia Little noted other communities typically don’t allow such late-night freedom.
And city attorney Thomas Mullins clarified that because vendors are licensed, they do not have to adhere to the city’s noise ordinance, so that would offer residents no protection.
Expanding the ability of food vendors to operate in Keene is a good idea, but the mobile nature of food trucks is a double-edged sword. It means they can offer their fare at different places at different times or days, maximizing foot traffic and making it easier for customers to reach them. But it also means they can set up anywhere in the city where they can obtain the property owner’s permission and feel they will make money.
That’s fine during normal business hours, but could be problematic late at night. It might be argued a food truck is unlikely to set up late at night in a residential area, but the city’s ordinances have to deal with what’s possible, not what the councilors feel is likely.
That said, there are areas of the city where bars and restaurants already operate well past 10 or 11 p.m., and in those areas, it seems unfair to tell food truck operators they must clear additional hurdles to do the same.
Therefore, we’d suggest the council consider a compromise: Allow unlimited hours, but only in specific areas — say, the central business district and parts of West and Winchester streets. Outside those areas, require a vendor to seek an exemption and explain why residents should be subjected to increased noise and late-night revelers.