Sweet Home planners discuss food trucks

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

The Sweet Home Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday, Feb. 2, to recommend that the City Council add a proposed mobile-food-unit (commonly known as “food trucks”) section to the Sweet Home Municipal Code.

City staff drafted the section following frequent MFU-installation requests and because of a lack of current city code to support them.

“I’m excited to see where this goes,” Planning Commission Chair Jeffrey Parker said. “I really think [Sweet Home is] kind of a destination drive through town in the summer. This is going to be something that’s going to slow people down. This may be all that’s needed for someone to get their toes a little wet in the scene of Sweet Home and decide that they need a bigger, more permanent location.”

Staff used Lebanon and Albany’s MFU codes as examples when drafting Sweet Home’s.

“[Lebanon and Albany] had some that were a little bit more stringent when it came to design standards and required amenities,” Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said.

“We were mainly looking to make it as easy a process as possible and not to be overly burdensome on the applicant.

“We mainly looked at ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessibility, how trash and utilities would be handled, and ensuring that it is an attractive place, but not really dictating much when it came to size or colors or anything like that. It was mainly looking at it from a health and safety standpoint.”

The proposed section reads that MFU “pods,” or a group of two or more mobile food units on a parcel of land, would be considered permanent installations and require prior site plan approval, as well as lighting in areas occupied by customers.

All MFU and customer amenities within a pod would need a 5-foot-wide (at minimum) hard-surfaced, ADA-compliant walkway. Waste and recycling receptacles would have to be provided.

Restrooms with hot and cold running water and nonportable toilets should be available on-site or on an adjacent parcel (with a signed agreement to allow clientele to use them).

All MFUs would have to maintain a 6-foot minimum clearance from any other MFU or structure.

Electrical generators would need to be at least 10 feet from other structures, with any exhaust directed away. MFUs would have to remain operable and mobile, although their wheels could be removed if they were stored onsite.

“I’ve seen somewhere they lower them to allow for easier access for the consumer,” said Planning Commission Chair Jeffrey Parker, who advocated for allowing food-cart wheels to be removed.

“A lot of people will take the tires off to lower them, and it’s kind of a theft-prevention measure as well. It keeps things from crawling around underneath it too.”

An MFU could only operate within the city for no more than three days within any 30-day period without first obtaining an MFU permit. However, one could operate sans permit within special events, such as a farmer’s market or public festival. In addition, an MFU in the public right-of-way would be exempt from needing a permit if parking regulations were followed and it didn’t block pedestrian or vehicle traffic.

“If you’re having a food truck come to your house for a party, this does not apply to that,” Larsen explained. “It’s not an issue. We want to make sure that nobody thinks we’re trying to regulate their party. You’re certainly more than welcome to have that operating for your private event.

“When it comes to existing food trucks in Sweet Home, unless that use stops for a period of time, they’re going to be allowed to continue that use and it will be fine.

“And when it comes to somebody with a cart on a street, this isn’t really going to affect them, either, unless they want to camp out at the same exact spot on private property every single day. That’s the only time when this is really going to be triggered.”

After obtaining a permit, an MFU is limited to one year at a given site, with an unlimited number of one-year extensions that require a new permit.

“I think that overall, Blair [Larsen] and [Associate Planner] Angela [Clegg] have done an excellent job of putting this together,” Commission Vice Chair Henry Wolthuis said.

Following the vote, the commission turned its attention to other city code issues. Wolthuis discussed the lack of enforcement, to which Larsen replied that Sweet Home had only one code enforcement officer (Ethan Rowe).

“There are other cities that have teams of code compliance officers, so many that they each have their own specific area of specialty,” he said. “You’ll have the open storage team, the tall grass and weeds team, and the shopping cart team. We don’t have that level of resources. We continue to deploy our code compliance officer as best we can to remedy these things.”

He said that the city was hampered in part by local culture.

“The more people are used to things being done a certain way, the more resistance they offer when you try to get them to do otherwise,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to change the direction of code compliance in the city because of a lot of issues that have just been allowed to continue for years and years and years and have blended into the background. It’s amazing how much effort it takes to try to get people to clean up their stuff. Anyone who’s a parent knows that, but imagine that on a city-wide scale. It’s a lot of work.”

He said the city was attempting to address some issues with new code. Currently, open storage is allowed if it’s visible from an alleyway, private street, or shared driveway, but not if it’s visible from a public street. However, the last city council meeting heard a first reading on a proposed ordinance that would remove exceptions for the former. For example, some trailer parks have private driveways that are essentially shared by all of their units.

“It’s kind of ridiculous that you have to pay attention to what kind of street you’re standing on to be able to enforce it,” Larsen said of the current city code. “We weren’t able to enforce on a lot of those units because it wasn’t visible from the public road. Now after this ordinance is passed, we’ll be able to go in there and actually enforce the open storage. So there is hope for things to get better.”

Commissioner Todd Branson asked about the process when property was reported to be in violation of code.

Larsen explained that after the code enforcement officer verifies a violation, he attempts to contact the offender in person. A notice of violation letter follows listing a time period, usually two weeks, to correct the issue. If the situation isn’t remedied, the violator is then fined, and can protest that fine in municipal court.

“Most of the time when people show up to municipal court, the judge gives them additional time and we’ll drop the fine if they correct,” Larsen said. If the person doesn’t correct the code violation, fines eventually build up and they stay on the property and can be a lien on the property.

The city can also follow an abatement procedure.

“The property owner is given notice that if they don’t correct it in this period of time, the city is going to go ahead and clean it up, and then the cost of that cleanup is going to be charged to them. And if they don’t pay it, it will go as a lien on their property,” Larsen explained.

“Someday they’ll sell their property and the city will get its money back, usually with interest if we’ve done our paperwork right. The problem is you have to have the money in the first place to be able to clean that up. There are insurance requirements for the company that does the cleanup and a lot of hoops to go through that depending on the level of cleanup needed can make abatement fairly costly.”

He added that some abatements conducted last year cost the city more than $10,000.

“That burns through our budget really fast, and we just don’t have the money to clean up multiple properties like that,” he said. “So we try not to use [abatement] if we can avoid it, but we are using it more and more, especially in egregious cases. We prefer to get compliance first, because we’re not really out for the money; we’re just out for everything to look better.”

He encouraged people to file complaints, which can be anonymous, about code violations by filling out paper forms available at City Hall, electronically at the city’s website (bit.ly/3HZTuW8) or by calling (541) 818-8043.

“We really need your input, because if you don’t make the complaint, it will blend into the background and your neighbors will get used to it, and we’ll have other areas where we are getting complaints that our code compliance officer will be busy focusing on, because those are what people are voicing their concerns about,” Larsen explained.

“We rely on people making complaints, because those complaints help us determine what the priority is.”

“Don’t feel bad about submitting a complaint,” he advised. “Feel good about submitting a complaint. That’s what we want people to do.”