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Mall's food truck contest hits a roadblock Amherst's permit law threatens to put brakes on planned fundraising event

The wheels are coming off "Buffalo's Best Food Truck Contest," as the Amherst food truck controversy keeps rolling along.

Brian Calvert, general manager for the Boulevard Mall, came up with the idea two or three months back for the mall to host an outdoor food truck contest as a benefit for Buffalo City Mission. The event was to be held noon to 3 p.m. this Saturday.

Food trucks would donate some of their sales proceeds to the charity, and the public would be asked to participate in taste tests, cast ballots for their favorite food truck and contribute non-perishable food and clothing to the Mission, which would have a truck on site to collect donations. Participants also would be eligible to win a shopping spree at the mall.

"It's a really worthwhile event meant to help the community," Calvert said.

But Amherst Building Commissioner Thomas Ketchum informed Calvert on Thursday that even though the event would benefit the City Mission, it's not a charity-led event, and town law does not allow him to waive the fees associated with the "transient business" permit that the town has determined food trucks are required to obtain.

The town's "peddling and soliciting" law requires "a retail or wholesale business conducted from a temporary structure or tent, truck, van or trailer" to pay a $100 permit fee per truck per location. Each permit is good for only 90 days.

The Town of Amherst has shut down three food trucks since late August for failing to obtain permits after reviewing and applying a 1993 town law that typically applies to peddlers, solicitors and junk dealers.

Peter Cimino, co-owner of the Lloyd Taco Truck, responded that he and other food truck operators who regularly visit five or six town locations would wind up paying $500 or $600 every three months, far more than annual permit for the City of Buffalo.

In the case of the Boulevard Mall event, he said, food trucks would have to pay a $100 permit fee just to participate in a fun, one-time event meant to benefit the poor and homeless. He called the town administration's stance on the issue "a fiasco" and questioned whether he could convince other food truck operators to shell out the money.

"I don't think we're going to be able to pull it together," Cimino said. "At this point, I'd say the event is in jeopardy of being canceled."

For many suburban residents, the event would have been their first introduction to the growing food truck phenomenon. Last week, the mall had commitments from the Lloyd Taco Truck, The Hole Hog, R&R Barbecue, The Cheesy Chick, House of Munch and Knight Slider. They would line up near Niagara Falls Boulevard by the mall's main entrance.

Calvert said he's hopeful the event will still continue.

"We honestly don't know what to expect," he said, "but we hope people will come out and enjoy the food and the atmosphere and give back."

Town officials previously said if they receive complaints about food trucks operating without a permit, they would no longer aggressively shut down the trucks' operations, but would issue appearance tickets requiring food truck operators to appear before a judge to challenge the town's law.

"Any appearance ticket we get is going to cost us money," Cimino said. "It's not worth it to us to vend in Amherst if we're going to have to go to court."

The building commissioner said he's been flooded with questions and concerns about the town's food truck permit requirement and has spent much of the past week working to craft an updated food truck permit law. But that won't be ready until November at the earliest.

"I realize we were going to look like the Grinch in this situation, but when somebody asks me a question about the regulation, I just give them the answer that's appropriate to the situation," Ketchum said. "We're not telling them they can't have the event. All we're telling them is that they have to have the appropriate permits."

Several town council members have said they would support a stay of enforcement on the existing permit law until the new law is finalized. Council Member Mark Manna also said he would seek to convene a special Town Board meeting this week to get the food trucks some relief so that the contest can move forward.

But that is not so easily done. A special meeting must either be called by the town clerk at the request of the supervisor, or it must be requested by two or more council members and agreed to by the majority.

Supervisor Barry Weinstein said he has no intention of calling a special meeting, which he said is supposed to be reserved for true emergencies.

"I'm not calling a special meeting on food trucks," he said.

He also said the food trucks still would be making money on the event, and he didn't think the permit fee is an obstacle to their participation. He pointed out that the Boulevard Mall is a successful operation and can afford to cover the food trucks' permit fees.

And even if the board convened a special meeting to ease enforcement of the existing law, an official moratorium still would be subject to a public hearing, which would require 10 days advance notice, according to Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones.

If the cost of the permit is the sticking point for the food truck vendors, Building Commissioner Ketchum said he recommends they obtain the permits and later apply to the Town Board for waivers or partial refund of the fees.

That may be the only temporary solution left, Manna said.

"It's extremely frustrating. It's been roadblock after roadblock," he said. "Even the things we came up with as a possible creative solution, or a different, more business-friendly interpretation of our antiquated code, in the world of government has turned out to be impossible."

Stuart Harper, executive director of the Buffalo City Mission, said he'll be disappointed if the event doesn't happen because 70 percent of the Mission's fundraising occurs between September and December.

"You know what we do in that case, don't you?" he said. "We pray. We'll get right on that."