County looks at streamlining approvals for food vendors

A proposal to amend Sussex County Code could streamline the process for certain vendors, such as food trucks, food carts and produce wagons.

At the March 17 meeting of the Sussex County Council, County Administrator Todd Lawson presented the council with a proposal that would allow certain vendors that are currently required to apply for a conditional use of land or variance to legally operate on commercially zoned property, to avoid that lengthy and expensive process.

“It’s very important from the beginning that we are only referencing vendors operating on commercial property right now,” emphasized Lawson. “It is important to realize the vendors we are talking about are not your traditional farmer markets, produce stands, roadside stands that you see scattered across this county, selling farm goods. They’re selling legally on AR-1 property,” he said of such ventures. “We are not discussing those vendors.”

Lawson referenced a number of examples, such as the Lowe’s hotdog stand in Lewes, which went through the County’s process to get a conditional use in order to operate on that commercial property.

He also discussed Hocker’s BBQ trailer that is primarily operated in the Hocker’s Super Center parking lot in unincorporated Clarksville.

“This particular applicant went through and got approval through the conditional-use process. This barbecue trailer has a conditional use to sell their products on their property in front of their store. It cost them thousands of dollars, both in planning and engineering, and legal expenses, to get that conditional use approved, to basically sell the same product they’re selling right inside their store.”

Planning & Zoning Director Lawrence Lank said Hocker’s BBQ also had to go through the Board of Adjustment, because the trailer they sell out of is considered a “mobile home-type structure.” He added that the trailer stays on Hocker’s property, unless it goes offsite to cater an event, and is stored near the back of the store during the winter months when it is not operational.

“Currently, anyone looking to do this kind of commerce,” said Lawson, has to go through “the conditional-use process. That entails submitting an application and fee, two public hearings in front of the Commission and yourselves. As Mr. Lank mentioned, sometimes a variance… Currently, that takes months of time to get your approval.”

Lawson said that is part of the reason the proposed streamlined process was brought before the council, following discussions in August 2014, as well as comments from the public.

The proposal included criteria that would allow vendors to qualify for a permit: operating on C-1- and CR-1-zoned property only, having permission from the property owner for use, and operating for a maximum of six months.

“What it would entail is a counter review. So a person would bring their application in, and it would be reviewed by the Planning & Zoning director, and it would be at the director’s discretion if the criteria is met,” explained Lawson. “If there are concerns, we have built in what we call a ‘kick-out clause’ that would require or allow the director to require the application to go through a hearing process.”

Lawson said the hearing process would not be the same as it is now, but would instead involve a single hearing through the Board of Adjustment, which would allow for a public hearing and the application to be brought before members of the board.

Councilman George Cole said he wanted the plan to be associated with only food-related concessions.

“I’ve been to other parts of the country where you pull into these intersections and you see someone selling velvet art of Elvis and different things like that, which is pretty tacky… Then we end up looking like flea markets at every intersection,” he said. “It can get pretty much out of hand.”

Councilman Sam Wilson said he believes the council is supposed to be complaint-driven and believed the council was “going overboard on this.”

Councilman Rob Arlett said the council is trying to be proactive and be part of the solution.

“The goal here is to make Sussex County more business-friendly, streamline the process and keep it relatively less expensive, because we do want to make it a simple, simple process for our residents who want to go out and create an income and provide for their families.”

Lawson again referenced the Hocker’s BBQ trailer, stating, “The intent going back — we had a specific vendor in this presentation selling their own product, on their own property in front of their own store, and they spent thousands of dollars to be approved to do that. I would think any of you would agree that that was over-burdensome.”

Lawson said the size of the vending vehicle allowed was undetermined, as the presentation allows for an average parking spot — approximately 162 square feet — to serve as the maximum size.

“We may need to better define that, but we do think that size should matter,” he said. “We don’t want an entire fourth of a parking lot taken up by a single vendor.”

Cole suggested using State regulations as to what is permitted to drive on roads without a special permit.

Lawson said he, Lank and Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson would take council’s comments into account and adjust their proposal, to be represented at a future date.