Noblesville passes $1K food-truck fee

Noblesville isn’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat for food trucks.

A divided Common Council approved changes in zoning law Tuesday that allow mobile food vendors to operate year-round in the city—with several restrictions and a fee that all but guarantees few will bother to make the trip.

Saying the proposed $200 annual permit fee was too low, Councilor Rick Taylor offered up an amendment increasing it to $1,000. The modification—and zoning measure—passed by a 4-3 vote after spirited discussion.

The debate was a familiar one: whether permitting mobile vendors puts taxpaying bricks-and-mortar establishments at risk.

“Do we want to encourage food trucks to come in … and potentially put one of these [restaurants] out of business?” asked council President Roy Johnson. He voted with Taylor, Mark Boice and Jeff Zeckel to hike the fee, saying it gives vendors a “vested interest” in the community.

Council member Stephen Wood said patrons, not politicians, should decide the fate of businesses. Colleagues Gregory O’Connor and Brian Ayer joined him in the minority.

“It’s good competition,” Wood said of food trucks. “And if they come and are successful here, they may open businesses here.”

That entrepreneurial element was among the points city Planning Director Christy Langley made in presenting the recommended zoning changes to the council.

“Food trucks can literally be an incubator” for bricks-and-mortar restaurants, she said.

A particularly relevant example: Barbecue enthusiast Adam Hoffman opened Big Hoffa’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que in Westfield after three years of selling smoked meat from a gas station parking lot in Noblesville (under a series of 60-day “special use” permits). The Fishers resident is planning to open a second location this fall in Carmel.

Noblesville’s suggested $200 fee—which passed Plan Commission muster by an 11-0 vote—was calculated based on the staff time required to process applications and enforce compliance, Langley said.

“It’s not intended to create a burden,” she said.    

Local food truck operator Kari Nickander called the $1,000 price tag “crazy.”

The Taco Lassi and Pho Mi trucks she owns with husband Adam Perry are among a half-dozen or so licensed to roll in Fishers, which implemented a controversial $200 fee this spring. (On top of the $100 county permit required to sell food.) There’s no additional fee in Carmel.

Nickander said it takes time for a food truck to build a following, making the high cost a barrier to entry—especially in a suburb that lacks the population density of a city like Indianapolis. More than 60 trucks pay the $194 annual fee to operate in Marion County, which is largely free of regulations.

“It makes me so sad,” said Nickander, a resident of neighboring Cicero who told the council she loves Noblesville and wants to contribute to the community.

Trucks that pony up in Noblesville still face restrictions, including bans on parking in the downtown zoning district, in residential areas or within 1,000 feet of special events and the Noblesville Farmer’s Market.

Downtown advocate Renee Oldham, executive director of the Noblesville Main Street organization, endorsed the zoning ordinance, calling it a compromise that offers existing eateries some security while giving residents more dining diversity.

“We want to be fair,” she said.

Zeckel, who owns a catering business and runs a food stand at the Farmer’s Market, questioned city’s efforts to safeguard downtown businesses.

“Why not protect all restaurants?” he asked.

Mayor John Ditslear said he was surprised by the council’s move to increase the permit fee so dramatically but hopes mobile vendors find their way to the city nevertheless.

“I think it’s special enough that someone would be willing to take the risk,” he said.

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