OCEAN CITY — Ocean City’s prohibition on food trucks got a unique challenge last week, and after considerable debate, resort planners gave tacit approval to a request for a hybrid of sorts at a historic downtown amusement park.
As the popularity of food trucks has grown in recent years, Ocean City officials have continually opposed the mobile, pop-up eateries for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, a mobile food truck offering all manner of wares could set up shop in the vicinity of traditional restaurants along the Boardwalk or virtually anywhere else in the resort. The idea is mobile food trucks could have an unfair advantage with traditional businesses that pay high rents, property taxes, business licenses and other expenses along with restrooms and public facilities.
To date, the town’s prohibition on food trucks has been largely unchallenged, save for the occasional request from a special event promoter, for good reason. However, the planning commission last week got a first look at a rather unique request from Trimper’s Rides to place a semi-permanent food trailer on the grounds of the historic amusement park at the foot of the Boardwalk.
In simplest terms, Trimper’s was seeking guidance on a proposal to bring a food truck onto park grounds during the peak summer season and offer food prepared off-site from Chick-Fil-A, the popular fast-food chain. According to the proposal, the truck, or perhaps more appropriately trailer, would not move during the summer months, but remain at its designated location. In addition, the food offered for sale from the trailer would not be prepared on-site, but rather brought in from the outside by the food chain. Zoning Administrator Frank Hall presented the Trimper’s proposal to the commission and said it does not fit neatly into the town’s codes on food trucks.
“It doesn’t quite fit the mold,” he said. “It’s a unique request. They want to remove the duck pond and put a food trailer in that space. They’re not proposing to cook in the trailer, but rather sell pre-cooked food from Chick-Fil-A.”
Hall explained the proposed trailer would not be a food truck in the traditional sense because it would be immobilized, at least during the summer months.
“It would be completely inside their property and would not encroach on the Boardwalk,” he said. “We have a food truck rule in Ocean City and does this qualify as a food truck? It’s unique in that it’s completely inside one of their spaces. I don’t have an answer and they are looking to you for some feedback.”
Planning Commissioner Peck Miller spoke from personal experience on the food truck issue.
“We tried to get a food truck at 67th Street and the city said no,” he said. “If we took the wheels off and put it on a foundation, the city might have approved it. It would still have to get health department approval and the health department didn’t want it on wheels either.”
Hall explained the proposal was cursory at this point and even if the commission endorsed it, it would still face other regulatory challenges.
“This is so preliminary, it hasn’t gone through any Technical Review Committee (TRC) review of the fire marshal or the health department,” he said. “They are just looking for some guidance before they go any further with this.”
Planning Commission Attorney Will Esham said the challenge was defining exactly what a food truck is.
“Ocean City doesn’t want food trucks in town and a food truck is a food truck,” he said. “I understand you have things in the park that are mobile and a food truck is mobile.”
Esham said if certain modifications were made, the proposal could pass muster.
“If you took this truck, or trailer, took the tires off and put it up on blocks for the summer with maybe some fake façade wheels, then maybe it would work,” he said. “Food trucks are cool in today’s world. I get that. I can picture a cool food truck inside there. I see the idea you’re trying to go after. You may have to modify it to comply with the city because we don’t want to open the door for food trucks right now.”
Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis said the Trimper’s proposal differed considerably from traditional food trucks that have been turned down by the city.
“This is a food trailer on private property,” he said. “It’s not like it’s driving all around town. This is different than what we see in Salisbury where the food trucks roll in and then roll out and the restaurants in the area take a hit.”
Gillis said he felt comfortable an endorsement of the proposal would not open the door for a flood of food truck requests.
“I don’t know if we’re opening Pandora’s box with this when we have a vendor who owns a site on private property,” he said. “It’s not like it’s running up and down the Boardwalk and all over the streets or anything like that.”
Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said the unique difference in the Trimpers’ request was the park’s zoning designation as an amusement overlay district.
“I feel comfortable if it’s in the amusement overlay district,” she said. “We allow them to change out their rides. We don’t do go down there and dictate where the rides should be or if they have a lemonade stand or a cotton candy cart. As long as we get it on a foundation and it’s staying right where it is, it’s not a vehicle with driving capacity.”
Hall explained to the Trimper’s representatives on hand a tacit endorsement from the planning commission did not necessarily mean the proposal would see the light of day.
“I’m going to ask for a consensus and I think I can see which way this is going,” he said. “The consensus is only for the use. You still have to meet the building code, the health department and the fire marshal and all of those things. I just don’t want you to go down this road and invest a lot of money and get a favorable consensus here only to get it killed somewhere else.”
With that said, the planning commission voted unanimously to conceptually approve the proposal provided it is only within the amusement overlay district and is somehow immobilized during the summer months. The proposed Chick-Fil-A trailer at Trimper’s would still need to clear other regulatory hurdles and get approval from the health department, the fire marshal and the building inspector, for example.