Deadlines tighten on vendor regulations

BLYTHEWOOD – On Monday night, the Planning Commission once again tackled the question of what policies, procedures and guidelines the Town government should put in place for itinerant vendors who want to set up shop in the Town Center District.

And, once again, the Commission punted.

Commission Chair Donald Brock opened the issue by questioning whether the discussion should be put off until the Blythewood Chamber members could have a seat at the table.

Commissioner Rich McKendrick, however, questioned whether it is appropriate that the Chamber be in the mix during a regular meeting of the Commission. He suggested a workshop might be the more appropriate place to include so-called stakeholders on the issue.

“I’d say the Chamber position would be to get as many businesses into town as possible for more revenue,” Brock said. He also suggested earlier in the meeting that the Commission should question whether they, ultimately, even want itinerant merchants doing business in the town.

“Once that question is answered, it will steer us in the direction of where we want to go,” Brock said.

While Town Planning Consultant Michael Criss listed some of the pluses of street vendors (they add interest and pedestrian traffic to the TCD), he also said there are concerns about the aesthetics of unregulated vendors and referenced Grace Coffee.

“However, the coffee vendor (Grace Coffee) was approved for a Certificate of Approval (COA) last year [April, 2017], by the Board of Architectural Review (BAR),” Criss said.

A loophole in the Town’s code of ordinances paved the way for Grace Coffee, a vendor housed in a small turquoise and white mobile home on Main Street in downtown Blythewood, to do what no other business in town has been able to do – receive a COA without meeting the Town’s architectural review standards.

It appears the Town’s ordinance regulating architectural review in the Town Center District (TCD) did not have well-defined regulations for mobile vendors.

“We were asked to give a COA without guidelines,” BAR [then] Vice Chairman Jim McLean told The Voice. “We (the BAR) did not want to do that because a COA is permanent. We grappled with it, and we did all we could do, considering the Town has no architectural review standards in place for mobile vendors,” McLean said. “The Town was caught off guard.”

Instead, the BAR agreed to grant a one-year conditional COA to the business to give the Town Council time to draw up standards and an ordinance for mobile vendors. That year will be up on or about April 17, 2018 and the Commission is no closer to forwarding a draft ordinance on the issue than it was a year ago.

At issue, according to Criss, is the definition of ‘structure’ in the Town’s code of ordinances.

“Structure’ is very broadly defined in the code, yet this mobile vendor is a ‘structure,’ and because it is in the TCD, it must have a COA from this Board for its exterior appearance,” The Town’s Planning Consultant Michael Criss told the Board in April, 2017.

While brick and mortar buildings in the Town Center District must adhere to guidelines for paint color, lighting, whirly gigs and other exterior architectural features, Grace Coffee was not required to meet any of those standards, Criss said.

However, McLean said the coffee vendor’s COA is based on how it currently stands and that it cannot make further (substantive) changes in its appearance going forward without coming back to the BAR.

Newly installed Board Chairwoman Pam Dukes then asked how the sign allowances would be applied to Grace Coffee.

That, too, turned out to favor the vendor over the town’s brick and mortar businesses.

“It’s clear what the regulations are for permanent structures that are affixed to the ground,” Criss said. “The landlord gets one monument sign freestanding out in the front yard and one wall sign on the facade facing the street.”

Those signs, according to the Town’s code must meet specific size and quantity guidelines.

“But it’s not crystal clear what the sign limitations are on a mobile unit such as a trailer,” Criss said.

Grace Coffee usually has four signs displayed – one at each entrance, one on the trailer and a menu sign in front of the trailer.

“Suppose they were frying chicken in there,” McLean asked, referencing a discussion the Board had earlier in the meeting with Kentucky Fried Chicken officials who are looking to make major exterior renovations of the KFC in downtown Blythewood.

“I’m trying to go back and grab the fairness. We just turned down Kentucky Fried Chicken about what they can and can’t do (with signage),” McLean said, pointing out that brick and mortar businesses in the Town are held to higher standards.

The discussion has been ongoing ever since Grace Coffee pulled in to town in December, 2016 and set up shop in the parking lot of Bits and Pieces consignment store.

“When we initially talked with them (Grace Coffee), they said they were going to take the trailer away each night. But now it sits there,” Mayor J. Michael Ross told Council in January of last year. “It’s another example of how a vending stand comes in and is just left there. It’s frustrating.”

At the February, 2017 meeting, Grace Coffee’s owner Bret Beyer added another dimension to the mobility issue, telling Council members that the stand was no longer mobile, that it could not be moved.

While a one-year temporary vender ordinance was passed in March, 2017 and Grace Coffee’s one-year COA is set to expire in April, and the Planning Commission is charged with coming up with draft standards [ordinance] for mobile vendors for recommendation to Town Council before those one year terms expire, expectations are growing slim that a new, permanent vending ordinance will be in place to meet those deadlines. The issue is not expected to be brought up for discussion again until Town Council’s annual retreat on March 10.