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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Food-cart pod controversy leaves a bad taste

The Columbian
Published: September 5, 2023, 6:03am

The saga of a once-burgeoning food-cart pod in Vancouver is a lose-lose situation for customers, small-business owners, the city and a local church.

The scenario: Last year, food carts started springing up in the parking lot of Living Hope Church at 2711 N.E. Andresen Road. The site of a former Kmart store, the church has a sprawling parking lot abutting the heavily traveled road — an ideal location for a food-cart pod. By March of this year, according to The Columbian, five carts had signed lease agreements with the church for spots at the roadside edge of the lot.

But church officials failed to acquire a necessary land-use permit until months after the food-cart pod had been established. That permit came with an unexpected fee of $45,000 for traffic impact, and the property owners passed the bill along to the food-cart proprietors.

Last month, The Columbian reported that “the owners of the food carts are frustrated, as they were not prepared to take on part of the fee, which doubles their rent to $3,000 a month, they said.” Now, one food cart has moved, another is seeking a new location, and one has closed. Two food carts remain on the site.

Poor judgment abounds throughout the situation. One involves the failure of church officials to secure the permit. As Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s community development director, wrote in an email to The Columbian: “Our advice to any person who may be contemplating a new use or development should contact the city first to find out all of the applicable approvals, fees, required improvements, etc., so there are no surprises.”

That sounds like a good rule of thumb for any enterprise.

At first glance, it is tempting to criticize city officials for oppressive regulations and an excessive price tag. But while Vancouver’s formula for calculating the fee can be questioned, officials appear to have been reasonable in the end.

In May, the city’s study estimated the food-cart pod would generate 333 new daily trips around Andresen Road. With a traffic impact fee of $424 per trip, a 30 percent “business enhancement factor” and 15 percent “tax reduction factor,” the bill to the church came out to $84,009.24. But after a meeting between Lead Pastor Doug Frazier and Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, the fee was recalculated to $45,000.

We don’t know whether most customers would add to local traffic by going out of their way to visit the pod or whether they would simply stop as they pass; we’ll leave that to the professionals. But a fee of $424 per trip seems an effective way to stifle the development of new businesses — whether it is food carts or some other endeavor.

The willingness of city officials to negotiate the final fee is commendable, but we fear it could open the door for other startups to seek leeway in disputing every charge handed down by local government.

There is good reason for traffic impact studies and for fees based on those studies. That is part of effective growth management, with governments straddling a line between smart regulations and those that stifle entrepreneurship. As Portland has demonstrated, food carts are an effective way to enhance a city’s culinary offerings while providing opportunities for small businesses — if they are allowed to flourish.

The situation has been difficult, and it could have been avoided with proper management from church officials. In the end, however, the biggest losers are customers of the food-cart pod and small-business owners trying to establish themselves in a competitive market.