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Zoning board’s appetite lacking

Members seeing more inquiries from would-be food truck operators

City staffers are preparing an ordinance establishing regulations for food trucks, which are an increasingly common subject of inquiry from would-be operators in Altoona, according to Codes and Inspections Director Rebecca Brown — who spoke to the Zoning Hearing Board on Wednesday, after the board denied permission for a semi-permanent food truck installation near the high school.

“There’s nothing about food trucks in the zoning codes,” Brown said, although rules for a home-based business license would apply for trucks parked at an operator’s home and taken elsewhere for sales, she said.

At Wednesday’s hearing, East Freedom resident Brett Shoenfelt asked for a variance from off-site parking and space regulations in mixed commercial-residential zones, so he could install a camper he’s converting into a food truck on a 1,500-square-foot lot on 19th Street, adjacent to the alley between Sixth and Seventh avenues, a short distance from the Salvation Army Church.

He’d cover the wheels with sheet metal, place a portable toilet, trash bin, picnic benches and small sign and sell hot sandwiches, mainly to students walking home from the school several blocks away, he said.

He has chickens and tomatoes and plans to raise pork, so he’d be supplying many of his own ingredients, he said.

He’d do business from about 2:30 to 11 p.m. weekdays and stay open until 2 a.m. weekends, with help from one other employee, he said.

“It’s a great economic opportunity (for) myself and the city,” Shoenfelt said. “Another amenity (in) the area.”

He’d dispense with picnic tables if he needed to provide off-street parking, he told the board.

Essentially, he was proposing a restaurant, which would be subject to regulations that apply to restaurants, which are inspected by the state Department of Agriculture — although the city Fire Department inspects for fire safety, said board solicitor Bill Stokan and Brown.

The ground isn’t big enough for a restaurant, said board member Horace McAnuff.

And the drawings that reflect his intentions for the property are wholly inadequate — not nearly specific enough, Stokan said.

Still, Shoenfelt’s idea is “unique,” Stokan said.

But it’s troubling, because it proposes temporary-type measures for an installation that seeks to be permanent, according to McAnuff.

What about the portable toilet? McAnuff asked.

He could dispense with that, Shoenfelt said.

Then how would you and your employee go to the bathroom? McAnuff asked.

And what about a propane tank outside the truck, and the fresh water and gray water tank, McAnuff asked.

Actually, he was hoping the board might help him decide what to do with the ground, Shoenfelt said.

“(But) we’re not supposed to be his sounding board,” Stokan said, after the vote.

Shoenfelt bought the property at tax sale five years ago, and in addition to paying taxes and cutting the grass, he’s been pondering how he could put it to use since then, Shoenfelt said.

“What would I be allowed to do with this parcel to make money?” he said, restating the question he had asked himself.

He bought the property under the mistaken impression that he was buying a nearby duplex when he bid on the ground, he said.

The lot may be too small for many uses permitted in the mixed zone, but with help from an engineer or lawyer, he might succeed, Stokan said.

A storage unit or a garage to store a car, might be feasible, he said.

He’d almost certainly need a setback variance, but he’d likely be entitled to that, based on “hardship,” because it’s not his fault that the lot is so small, Stokan said.

Neighbor Debbie Caldwell, whose backyard is adjacent to Shoenfelt’s lot, had competed with Shoenfelt to buy the lot at the tax sale auction, wondering why he was willing to pay so much.

She’s still trying to buy it.

“Do you have an open heart enough” to sell it? she asked Shoenfelt.

That depends on how much you offer, he indicated.

He paid $2,400, he said.

“I went as far as $1,000,” Caldwell said.

She wouldn’t be happy to have a food truck installed on the site, especially if it were open late into the evenings, Caldwell told the board.

The board can expect to deal with food trucks again — including a request likely to come before it next month, Brown said.

Food trucks are becoming “prevalent,” perhaps under the impetus of the COVID-19-related restaurant closings, Brown said.

Municipalities all over have been dealing with the issue, trying to figure out how best to regulate them, she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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