SAN DIEGO - The City Council took the first steps Wednesday toward developing regulations for the burgeoning food truck industry in San Diego, in an effort to balance competing interests of truck operators, restaurateurs and residents.
Operators of the trucks, popularized by television shows on the Food Network, have been complaining the past few months about tough enforcement by Neighborhood Code Compliance officers, who are operating under rules that aren't specifically tailored for the new business model.
Councilman David Alvarez said many operators of gourmet food trucks are violating current city codes. Several council members said the idea behind the drive to regulate the industry was to give operators a clear set of rules they can work under.
"They're part of the fabric of San Diego," said Chris Duggan of the California Restaurant Association, which represents food truck operators and brick-and-mortar restaurants. "Food truck operators right now are in limbo -- they don't know where to operate and when."
Marko Pavlinovic owns a food truck and has more than 3,000 followers on social media.
"Once I post on Facebook and Twitter where I'm going to be and they don't find me there it's a disappointment. It's bad for business," said Pavlinovic.
Within the last few months he has been shut down for operating on private property because currently, no zone within the city allows food trucks on private property.
"You know, every time I get shut down, I lose money," said Pavlinovic. "I got to pay my employees, I got to pay my produce, I got to pay my things. It's starting to be a little ridiculous," said Pavlinovic.
But many restaurant owners disagree.
"It's unethical and it's not the way to do business," said Moe Sadighian, who co-owns six restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter.
They pay more than $70,000 in rent each month and he wants the food trucks out.
"They get to get there when they want. They don't have to pay rent. They pay small fees for a permit. They close the street off," said Sadighian.
Pavlinovic says he understands why restaurant owners get upset, but tells 10News he pays his fair share.
"We pay taxes, we pay our fees," he said. "I've got a commissary. I've got a food truck I've got to pay rent on and I've got a kitchen to pay too. I mean, I have more bills probably than a little small corner shop, a mom and pop shop."
Pavlinovic says he just wants to run his business.
Amanda Lee, of the city's Development Services Department, told the City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee that staff will have to work through a long series of issues before regulations can be developed.
Among them are operating hours; the number of days per week trucks can remain in one location; allowable proximity to restaurants, schools, bus stops and intersections; bathroom requirements; and trash pickup, she said.
They will also have to figure out whether to allow the food trucks in residential zones, as well as industrial and commercial areas.
The committee provided some feedback to staff, but did not take action.
Chairwoman Lorie Zapf said from what she has heard, fairness for the various parties was the main issue.
"One particular restaurant owner comes to mind who had said that he (has) the 24-hour bills and costs, and people counting on their shifts," Zapf said. "They come into (their) jobs, they're counting on the lunch shift, and
food trucks pull up in front of their business and poach their lunch (customers)."
On the other hand, she said she likes food trucks because they appear at special events for schools and nonprofits and donate part of their proceeds, which she said was "terrific."
According to Lee, city staff will draw up an ordinance and have it publicly vetted before returning to the City Council early next year. Duggan said his organization would propose a set of regulations as soon as next week.
Whatever is eventually adopted by the City Council will also need approvals from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, for areas around the city's airports, and the California Coastal Commission, for neighborhoods along the beaches and bayfront.
Councilwoman Sherri Lightner asked Lee to consider including noise restrictions -- particularly for electrical generators -- accessibility for the disabled, and whether the trucks should fit into existing parking spaces.
She also floated the idea of a citywide limit on the number of mobile food vendors, so they don't "proliferate" under future regulations at the expense of restaurants.
Code enforcement efforts slacked off under Bob Filner, who resigned as mayor Aug. 30, but were reinvigorated under Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, leading food truck business leaders to post an online petition that sought support from the public.
Food trucks are currently not allowed on private property unless they're at a permitted special event. The city looked away until recently while they set up shop in paid parking lots around the city.
The petition contended that Gloria reneged on previous city promises not to enforce the private property restriction while a new ordinance is developed.
The interim mayor called it "a complicated issue" that was the result of an "absence of policy."
For now, if a complaint is filed against a food truck, the city will investigate it under the current code, but they admit the current rules are unclear.
There is no complete count of the number of mobile food vendors in the region, but about 75 gourmet food trucks are listed on sdfoodtrucks.com.