CHATHAM — At least on a trial basis, there are likely to be food trucks in a few locations in Chatham this summer. Working on a model regulation from Needham, selectmen are drafting a policy to allow mobile food vendors to operate with minimal impact on traditional restaurants, likely as part of a one-year pilot program.
Chatham lacks a mechanism for specifically regulating mobile food vendors, and selectmen asked staff to survey surrounding communities for ideas. On Cape Cod, Harwich and Orleans address food trucks through health board regulations and a zoning bylaw, while Dennis and Wellfleet use regulations from the board of selectmen.
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said she consulted with town counsel, who favors using regulations. The town’s attorney opined that zoning bylaws are not properly designed to regulate trucks, and they require approval at town meeting by a two-thirds majority. Even a general bylaw amendment would require majority approval by town meeting. Crafting a town regulation can easily be done by selectmen.
“This provides greater flexibility,” Goldsmith said, so that if the board needs to adjust the rules after a pilot program, it can do so more readily.
Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said she favors a one-year trial of new regulations, adding the rules used by the town of Needham represent a good starting point for discussion.
In Needham, selectmen grant permits for mobile food vendors and require that they be positioned at least 200 feet from the customer entrance of a fixed-location restaurant, though the board can waive that requirement. The permit limits food trucks to specific street locations, but they can also operate on school property, public parks and parking lots when they are invited by a person who holds a valid permit to use that property. By obtaining a direct permit, mobile food vendors in Needham can also operate independently in public parks and parking lots.
Needham limits such operations to dates between April 1 and Nov. 30, though Chatham selectman Peter Cocolis said he would favor allowing operation outside that window. The Needham regulations do not apply to private functions on private property, nor to ice cream trucks that move from one location to the next and are not stationary for more than 10 minutes.
To operate one day per week for a full season, mobile food vendors in Needham pay a $100 fee, plus an additional $100 for each additional day of operation each week. Daily fees for operation at schools, public ways, public parks and parking lots range from $10 to $20.
Chatham Selectman Dean Nicastro said he also favors a pilot program. “I personally would like to be as generous as we can” to encourage food trucks to operate in downtown Chatham, under regulations “that take into account brick-and-mortar stores,” he said. Nicastro suggested that the town draft its own regulation based on Needham’s and make the draft available to merchants for review and comment. “I’d like to see something in place for next tourist season,” he added.
Board member Cory Metters said he is sensitive to the concerns of traditional restaurants, but believes some kind of compromise is possible.
“I think we can find a way to make this work,” he said.
While she said she likes the Needham regulations, they are “just to start the conversation,” Davis added.
Chatham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Cavanaugh questioned the 200-foot buffer from other restaurants and whether that rule would allow food trucks to set up anywhere in downtown Chatham. She offered to meet with town staff to research the matter.
Tom Deegan of Mom and Pop’s restaurant, which operates a food truck, also questioned that buffer zone, which he said “would severely limit the truck’s ability to operate.” His food truck operated during the town’s Christmas Stroll and during First Night Chatham, when it ran out of food.
“What we find is that people are excited about it,” he said. “It draws people out.” He said food trucks are especially popular with younger patrons, an idea echoed by resident Danielle Tolley, who has a toddler.
For her and her family, “food trucks are a game-changer,” she said. It’s difficult to spend any time in a traditional restaurant when you have young children, and food trucks offer young families an affordable way to eat out.
“They add so much liveliness and vibrancy to our community,” she said.
Last summer, selectmen were forced to consider regulating mobile food vendors after Mom and Pops sought to operate its truck during the weekly Mondays on Main music events. Several downtown restaurant owners complained that a food truck would be unfair competition and would hurt their businesses. The truck operated for one night only, on private property, and gave out food for free.