Posted 5/16/12 (Wed)
By Lauren Billing
Farmer Staff Writer
The battle over mobile food vendors in Watford City finally boiled over last Monday when the Watford City City Council voted 3-1 to give mobile food vendors 45 days to come into compliance with zoning ordinances, and in most cases that means relocating.
“One vendor who was located on Main Street moved under protest, but eventually relocated directly adjacent to an existing restaurant,” says Brent Sanford, Watford City mayor. “That was when public complaints escalated.”
The council’s discussion looked at the city’s current ordinances, like the enforcement of transient merchant licenses, and what zoning regulations allow. These two factors in particular, along with complaints about the location of some food vendors, moved the city to look more closely at the issue.
The transient merchant license includes anyone selling goods, wares or merchandise in one location or travels from place to place, who does not intend to become a permanent merchant in Watford City. They are required to apply with the city for the license, and upon approval, must submit a $1,000 bond and pay a daily fee of $25.
In addition to the transient merchant license, a food vendor must also adhere to zoning ordinances concerning where they are allowed to sell. Currently, the zoning ordinance states that mobile food trucks are allowed only in A-1 and A-2 zones, not the C-B and C-1 zones they have been parking in.
“Food truck vendors have been in Watford City for a few years, with few negative comments,” says Sanford. “This summer the economic activity, in general, has increased again and the food truck vendors have increased as well.”
The increase in overall activity in the area and the promise of more to come moved the city council to make a decision before the trickle became a flood.
By the end of the discussion, the council voted three to one to actively enforce the current zoning ordinance and gave the merchants 45 days to relocate to appropriately zoned areas. They will still need to have a valid transient merchant license as well.
“Permanent restaurants are what we need for the future as the population grows. Allowing unlimited mobile food trucks may limit the likelihood of permanent restaurant expansion,” says Sanford. “We saw this with temporary housing. We allowed temporary housing on existing city lots where zoning allowed it. It didn’t take long to realize that no new construction could take place with all available lots being taken for temporary housing projects.”
Nat Small and his partner, AJ Jordan, own one of the food trucks that is being forced to relocate. They own Pizza Pie on the Fly located in the parking lot of McKenzie Inn on 2nd Avenue Southwest.
Small and Jordan first went to the city seeking approval for their licensing and location. They were told their location was allowable as long as they were not impeding traffic. After meeting those requirements, they opened for business on Jan. 5.
“I felt that we were courteous in working with all the city’s requirements,” says Small. “We received one complaint about where we were situated in the lot and we had it fixed the very next day.”
Pizza Pie on the Fly currently has two employees serving a variety of customers, including local high school sports teams and youth groups.
Small was at the city council’s meeting during the discussion on food vendors and spoke to the council in regard to the issue.
“I was very disappointed with the outcome of the meeting,” states Small. “I thought the council would make decisions based on the interests of the people of Watford City, not based on the extra effort it would take to rewrite a functional and practical ordinance.”
The city’s ordinance committee includes Deanne Valenzuela, Justin Voll and Shane Homiston and they would be in charge of any kind of readjustment to what is allowed by the city’s zoning.
“After discussing the possibility of enacting a new ordinance and making sure it would cover all the bases, the council felt there was no efficient or fair way to draft an ordinance that could do that,” explains Voll.
Roger Maki owns McKenzie Inn where Pizza Pie on the Fly is located. He welcomed Small and Jordan, but insisted that they first get approval from the city to set up where they did.
“I don’t care what the rules are, but we should follow them all the time, not just when we want to,” says Maki. “I think the city should reimburse them (Small and Jordan) for the money they invested in setting up here because the city told them they could.”
Shelly Suelzle, owner of Little Missouri Grille, found no issue with any of the food vendors, as long as they had all the same health regulations as restaurants were required to have.
“We do need more restaurants,” says Suelzle. “I want to give all my customers good service, but with all the people that can get overwhelming.”
Suelzle’s opinion, however, changed somewhat when The Sloppy Jalopy, owned and operated by Lilia and Jesse Spitzack, set up within feet of her restaurant.
“I don’t think that’s right,” says Suelzle. “They may have invested a lot of money, but so have I. Not parking so close seems like common sense to me.”
The current suggestion for food vendors is to move to the McKenzie County Fairgrounds which meets the A-1 and A-2 requirements.
This would mean that on top of the daily $25 transient merchant fee, the fairgrounds would charge an additional $50 a day rental fee. That would bring a vendor’s daily fees to $75. Those costs over a one-year period total over $27,000.
“I wish there was a better solution,” says Steve Williams, Watford City Building inspector. “We have to protect the integrity and character of this city. Watford doesn’t want to be a transient destination.”
Kristin Bolken, president of the Watford City Area Chamber of Commerce, also knows how important protecting the city’s integrity is. Bolken and the rest of the Chamber members want to support businesses that are going to be here to stay.
“We want everybody to do well, but the Chamber wants businesses and business owners to have an investment in the community,” says Bolken.
With location being nearly everything in the world of real estate, food vendors have enjoyed prime locations around Watford City where busy customers can pull in and out. But with less than 45 days left before they have to vacate and find approved locations, many vendors are wondering where to go from here.
The city knows this will be best in the long run for its businesses and residents to help secure more permanent restaurants in town, but until then, there will be many having to look a little harder to find food on the go.