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Wednesday, 06 April 2016 15:13

Food trucks and festoon lights run afoul of building codes

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fr foodtrucksWhen David Young pulled a food truck onto the lot of Mad Anthony’s Bottle Shop & Beer Garden in downtown Waynesville this winter, he launched the first salvo in a tangled tug-of-war testing the old adage: is it better to ask for forgiveness than permission?

Young faced an uphill slog to renovate a run-down old house into a craft beer hub and music venue, a nightmarish mix of DIY home makeover and the start-up struggles of an entrepreneur. He was often frustrated by the hoops he had to jump through with the town’s building code officers.

“Now they won’t even offer me the hoops anymore,” Young said two weeks ago.

Things had gone from bad to worse for Young after he skipped the crucial step of getting building permits for some finishing touches on Mad Anthony’s outdoor beer garden. In response, the town threatened to revoke his already tenuous food truck permit.

So last month, with little left to lose, Young rallied his patrons to stand with him as he prepared for a public face-off with the town.

“We have been harassed, threatened and, finally, targeted for shutdown,” Young wrote in an open letter on Facebook. “Our response is simple: we will fight. We will fight in the court of law. We will fight in the court of public opinion. We will fight on social media, in print, and on television. If the town wants to go to war, they should have chosen a business that doesn’t embrace the motto ‘Issue the orders, sir, and I will storm hell.’”

That motto was spoken by General Anthony Wayne, Waynesville’s namesake and a Revolutionary War hero known as Mad Anthony, which is where Young got his bar’s name.

A crowd of two dozen of Mad Anthony’s supporters at last month’s planning board bought into the storyline of Young as the underdog fighting bureaucratic obstructionists.

Folks who work in the town’s development and permit office were at a loss, however. 

They are legally bound to enforce building codes and ensure public safety, explained Elizabeth Teague, development services director who’s over the town’s building code enforcement section. 

Town building code officers had met with Young twice, but somehow weren’t getting through.

“If there has been miscommunication between us and Mad Anthony’s, we will make efforts to help him understand what is required,” Teague said. “We will continue to work with them to reach code compliance.”

 

Food truck foray

Unknotting the issues between the town and Mad Anthony’s isn’t easy, but it’s impossible to understand without first talking about food trucks.

Food trucks aren’t allowed to set up shop day in and day out on same site under the town’s current rules. 

But Young took a gamble and opened one anyway this winter with a temporary permit from the town. The permit was good for only six months, but Young had high hopes that before his time was up, the town would embrace the growing scene and rewrite its food truck rules to grant him permanent status. 

The rewrite has proved more complex than Young thought, however.

Fans claim food trucks add to a community’s street scene and vibrancy, catering to an alternative demographic. But opponents claim the low overhead of food trucks give them unfair advantage compared to the established restaurant industry, jeopardizing their vital role as anchors in the economy.

Food trucks also pose philosophical questions of aesthetics and community character — issues that likely wouldn’t be sorted out on the timetable Young hoped for.

With the larger food truck debate just heating up, it’s now unclear whether new rules will be settled on before the six-month limit on Young’s temporary permit catches up with him.

But that recently proved the least of his concerns. In February, Young faced another bump in the road, one that would bring his food truck to a screeching halt for entirely different reasons.

Young was put on notice by town code officers that he was in violation of building and fire codes for recent additions to his property, and if not fixed in haste, he would have to forfeit the temporary permit for his food truck. 

Young had failed to get proper building permits before erecting a covered roof over his outdoor patio. He also ran afoul of building and fire codes when stringing a maze of industrial-grade lighting from tree branches over his outdoor beer garden without a permit, as well as violating the town’s light pollution ordinance.

Young saw the cease and desist order as a threat to his survival. Mad Anthony’s has no restaurant onsite, and despite offering the best selection of eclectic craft brews in Western North Carolina — even when compared to beer-crazed Asheville — Young lost customers every night when they ventured off in search of supper, whether that meant heading home, hitting the drive-thru or bar-hopping to somewhere else that served food.

“Food was always supposed to be part of this,” Young said of his master plan for Mad Anthony’s. “We didn’t realize just how critical it would be, or how quickly it would be critical.”

 

The impasse

While Young questioned the rationale of tying his food truck operation to seemingly unrelated building code violations, town building code officers said they were willing to work with Young if he just showed some due diligence.

“We would like them to address the presence of the building code violations before we automatically renew the food truck permit,” said Teague.

Young felt like that was a catch-22, however. He claimed he was never given a detailed list of how his lights and patio roof violated building codes. 

He was simply ordered to take them down because he hadn’t gotten a permit, and thus was automatically in violation.

“Can I get some specifics? They will not tell me what the problems are,” Young said. “Isn’t there an intermediary step to mitigate the situation? There is almost always a way to bring something into compliance.”

However, town officials felt like they were in a catch-22 of their own.

They couldn’t tell Young how to bring the lights and canopy into compliance, because they had no building permit from Young that described any sort of specs to go by. 

Tom McGuire, the town’s senior building code officer, said it’s not the town’s job to design construction plans for the public. To give Young a detailed list of issues would put the onus on McGuire to measure the size and span of the awning roof timbers, calculate the load, calibrate the number and size of the bolts needed, and so on.

That’s the type of thing that’s supposed to be contained in the building permit, which Young never submitted.

“We would like them to come apply for a permit and then we can go out and take a look at what is there,” McGuire said.

Teague said it comes down to an issue of safety.

“You have a responsibility as a business owner to make sure it is safe for the public,” Teague said. “We don’t know who built it or how it was built. We have no specs.”

As for the festoon lighting system suspended from trees, in the absence of a building permit, McGuire said he has no way of knowing whether they meet electrical code or are properly supported. They also don’t pass muster with the town’s light pollution ordinance, which requires lighting to shine down, not up and out.

With media attention on the stand-off building, and the deadline drawing nearer to get into compliance or face penalties, Teague reached out to Young in hopes of starting over.

Following a two-hour meeting with Teague and a building code inspector on Mad Anthony’s property last Friday, Young acquiesced on his depiction of the town.

“The people who regulate the codes have to go by the letter and can’t pick and chose,” Young said. “It is a cover-your-ass thing for the town. If something ever happened people would start looking at ‘Did the town do its due diligence?’”

Young was also pleasantly surprised by the town’s willingness to compromise.

“We kind of hit a happy medium,” Young said.

Both parties agreed to concessions. The town backed off its previous drop-dead date of April 7 — which incidentally had already been extended once — and extended it again, giving Young more time to fix the building code issues, and would let the food truck stay in the meantime as well.

In exchange, Young acquiesced as well.

He was given the option of leaving the patio roof and lights up, on the condition that he retroactively filed for proper building permits and they passed inspection.

“They wanted me to get drawings and the engineering and technical details on paper and then come to them and pull and permit so they can come and inspect them,” Young said.

But Young said he now plans to tear them down anyway. The lighting and patio roof were only temporary improvements until he could pull off a larger master plan for the property — namely a bigger and better covered patio and a permanent pole-style lighting system throughout the beer garden.

He’s decided to go ahead and pull the trigger on those plans, instead of jumping through the hoops of getting a retroactive permits for what he intended only as a temporary measure in the first place.

“Fortunately we will be able to avoid all of that. They will be coming down anyway in the time it would take me to get those drawings together,” Young said.

Young said he is able to accelerate his master plan thanks to robust business.

“We actually had a much better winter than we had projected,” Young said. “It is exceeding expectations across the board.”

 

A new leaf

Young said he is glad a knock-down-drag-out with the town has been avoided and they all seem to be on the same page now.

“As a business, we are in a position where we are dealing with a governing body that is willing to work with us, willing to compromise with us, and willing to help us move forward — with the expectation that moving forward involves us addressing their issues in a timely agreeable manner,” Young said.

In hindsight, Young couldn’t say whether the tack he took was necessary to arrive at the current resolution.

“I think it served as a wake-up call. I can understand there may have been some hurt feelings, but the end result is I feel like the development office is our ally,” he said.

Young said one reason he geared up for battle was partly based on historical issues with a particular town building code officer — who incidentally isn’t with the town anymore — during his initial renovation phase of the building Mad Anthony’s occupies. It’s also why he tried to avoid the building permit process when installing the lights and awning.

“When you fear overbearing, over-burdensome decrees from on high, it makes one very reluctant to get involved with that agency,” Young said. “There was that reputation. This in no way reflects on the entire department today.”

 

What’s next

While Young has escaped imminent shutdown of the food truck, the outcome remains up in the air. The town planning board discussed new rules for food trucks last month that would be more permissive than they are now. But just how permissive is to be determined, and would still have to garner approval from the town board of aldermen. 

The new rules being considered by the planning board, while more lenient, would still classify food trucks as temporary, although they could effectively operate year-round by continually renewing the temporary permit, with no limit on duration.

Young spoke against anything other than permanent designation for food trucks at the last planning board meeting.

“We aren’t asking to be shoehorned into your temporary use ordinance. Putting us into the temporary use category belittles us,” Young said. “We don’t want to keep rolling temporary permits back to back. Restaurants on Main Street don’t have to go in every 180 days and prove to the town they have a right to be here.”

What Young was asking for, however, was an oxymoron. Food trucks can’t simultaneously be mobile and permanent per state building codes, Teague explained.  

“To be a permanent structure you are going to have to actually comply with state building codes,” Teague said. 

“We are not empowered under building codes or zoning codes to allow a mobile food truck to be a permanent fixture on a site.”

Young said he has a better understanding of the town’s conundrum after the meeting with town development officers last week.

“There are problems with having a temporary permit that lasts forever,” Young said.

Young plans to propose another alternative, one that would put food trucks in an entirely new classification unto their own.

 “It seems like they are genuinely interested in working with us,” Young said. “There are always going to be growing pains, and all we can do is grit our teeth and get through them together.”

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