A Milton vendor bender? City considering ban on mobile food sellers

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, August 3, 2013

MILTON—The Milton City Council could vote on a new city ordinance Tuesday that would prohibit mobile street vendors from selling goods on city-owned property.

The draft ordinance would prohibit most mobile street vendors from selling goods on public property or from parking lots in the city because vendors “may constitute a danger to public safety or an impediment to public use of public parking lots or public property,” according to the ordinance.

The mobile vendor rule would not apply to nonprofits holding fundraisers, vendors on private property, or farmers market vendors who sell vegetables and other goods from stands at public locations in the city.

City staff drafted the ordinance at the council's request after a local ice cream shop owner complained last month that another local business owner plans to sell ice cream products from a van.

Some city officials, such as Alderwoman Anissa Welch, have sought to steer dialogue on the issue away from the subject of business competition, instead focusing on public safety.

Welch last month said she had concerns that a stream of mobile vendors in and out of Parkview Drive and Goodrich Park, the city's east side business district, could pose safety issues for youths using the city's new splash park.

In an interview last week, Mayor Brett Frazier said he hopes the focus of discussion on the ban sticks to public safety and parking issues.

“We already have limited parking in the Parkview Drive area and a less than ideal traffic flow,” he said. “We should be able to make an educated assessment of whether a mobile vendor use in the parking areas around the park are a good use, or if it's something we don't want.”

Yet Frazier admitted that the council has dragged issues of competition into past discussions over mobile vendors, and he acknowledged the issue has only come up twice—once, last year, when an out-of-town taco truck came to Milton and rubbed local tavern owners the wrong way; and last month, when a local ice cream shop owner complained to the city about another business owner's plans to sell ice cream out of a van.  

He said it is difficult to extract the argument of competition from what he believes is an issue of parking logistics and public safety, a dilemma he finds “disappointing.”

“To me, it's not a difficult question. It's not our job to police competition, and it's not the job of a city to make sure that one business has an artificial advantage over another,” Frazier said.

“Do we have only one business selling hamburgers? Or is it too much to have two restaurants that serve lunch? Where does that sort of thing end?” Frazier said.

Alderman David Adams has been an outspoken opponent of mobile vendors, calling the vendors “squatters” who create unfair competition for bricks and mortar businesses because they don't pay property taxes, and can roll around Milton at will.

Some business owners have suggested the city could set a cap on how many vendors to permit, or set certain parking restrictions for mobile businesses. Alderman Don Vruwink said he believes the city could charge a fee for the vendors similar to a city property tax.

Adams in July said he doesn't see any fair or equitable way the city could limit how many or what type of mobile vendors the city could allow, so he believes it would be best to ban them all.

Don Vruwink, who is the only council member so far to publicly oppose banning mobile vendors, said he thinks a ban is shortsighted.

The Parkview Drive area is adjacent to Goodrich Park, which has a new splash park that opened in July. City data released this week estimates use of the park at 25 people per hour. Vruwink said the splash park draws enough of an influx of families to create a market for niche businesses such as mobile vendors.

Meanwhile, the city plans to sell concessions out of a gazebo at the park, using money from sales to help pay the cost of city-hired splash park chaperones, City Administrator Jerry Schuetz has said.

Milton Chamber of Commerce board Chairman Mark Warren said that the chamber hasn't taken a stance on the mobile vendor issue, but a chamber board committee plans to discuss the issue Monday. He said the chamber's executive director could give the council an advisory recommendation on mobile vendors next week.

Warren said so far, only one city council member has asked the chamber for input on the issue.

Warren, who owns a trophy and memorabilia business in downtown Milton, has his own thoughts on the idea of the city banning mobile businesses.

He said he understands issues of public safety and parking could need to be discussed, but he wonders if those issues are impetus enough for an outright ban on mobile vendors.

Warren said he has told city officials he opposed the city picking and choosing what types of businesses it will allow, especially when the decision appears tied to business competition.

He said he hopes the council slows down on a decision to give the entire business community a chance to weigh in.

“There might be some good intentions there, but I think they're really jumping the ball on this one,” Warren said.

The city has no current rules on the books for mobile vendors. It's been a void in city code that was exposed in May 2012, when a taco truck owned by Los Agaves, a Delavan Mexican food restaurant, began selling food while parked in a public parking lot on the east side.

At the time, the city sold Los Agaves a $25, yearlong direct seller's permit, the type of permit normally parsed out to mobile businesses that sell goods and services door-to-door.

Schuetz said in retrospect, a direct seller permit for the taco truck was “inappropriate” based on the type of business the truck did.

The taco truck, which has since moved to downtown Fort Atkinson, drew the ire of some local tavern owners, who complained to city officials that Los Agaves was undercutting the taverns' taco nights.

The city discussed the issue last year, but put it on the back burner until last month.

The council rekindled the issue last month after Robert Tracy, owner of the Cone Zone, an ice cream shop on the city's west side, complained that another local business owner, Beth Drew, planned to sell prepackaged ice cream from a van at local baseball diamonds, including Schilberg Park, which is across the street from Tracy's ice cream shop.

At a city council meeting last month, Tracy demanded Drew supply detailed business plans.

Drew, who owns two permanent businesses in Milton, has worked on ad hoc city committees to re-develop Goodrich Park and improve business advertising signage visibility in the face of the pending Highway 26 bypass, which will route thousands of cars a day a miles around the city's business sectors.

Drew said she hopes officials understand the city faces major changes, and that officials think long and hard before eliminating potential businesses markets that she said could add variety and keep the city's commercial areas vibrant.

“This is not about my ice cream or someone else's tacos,” Drew said. “This city is soon going to become a bowl with traffic passing by that can't see us. Do we also want create a business environment that's unfriendly? It's a detriment.”

Last updated: 7:54 am Sunday, August 4, 2013

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