Sidewalk Vendor Laws in North County are Forcing Vendors to Rethink Their Livelihoods
While state law prevents cities from adopting rules that criminalize sidewalk vending, in practice, some regulations in North Couty cities are leaving street vendors with two choices: adapt or get left behind.
By Tigist Layne
Originally Published in Voice of San Diego
In the last couple of years, it has become increasingly difficult for James Beauford to sell fragrances and incense on Oceanside’s sidewalks.
Beauford’s once full-time street vending operation has become a second source of income, he said, because it’s easier to pay for a spot at the farmer’s market than deal with the city’s permit process and location restrictions.
The strict regulations, burdensome permit processes and harsh punishments in some sidewalk vendor ordinances in cities in North County are leaving vendors with two choices: adapt or get left behind.
Counterintuitively, these regulations have been passed in response to a state law intended to make it easier for sidewalk vendors to thrive in California.
Cities throughout the county are still working on their own rules, but a handful of cities in North County have already had these regulations in place for up to three years, and for some vendors, there’s no denying that their businesses have been impacted.
Proponents and critics of these ordinances agree that street vending needs to be regulated at some level, but the experiences of vendors throughout North County indicate many city ordinances are forcing vendors to completely change how they operate, find other sources of income, or give up on their businesses altogether.
And if vendors do navigate through the complicated language that, at times, is not accessible to non-English speaking people, they then have to worry about where they can operate their business, while dealing with the pressure to accommodate nearby brick-and-mortar businesses.
The state law passed in 2018 protects sidewalk vending as an entrepreneurship opportunity, especially for low-income and immigrant communities. It says cities cannot place any bans on sidewalk vending, but can place some restrictions on vendors as long as the restrictions are addressing health and safety concerns.
Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista, Solana Beach and Encinitas all have sidewalk vending ordinances in place. A few of these cities even place similar restrictions on food trucks, while the state law does not.
The different ordinances are similar in that they outline the permit/licensing requirements and detail where sidewalk vendors can set up shop.
For example, sidewalk vendors in Carlsbad are prohibited from vending “in or on any alley, beach, pier, square, street, street end, parking lot or parking space.”
And much like the other cities, it has a long list of specific distance guidelines detailing where vendors can’t operate, therefore finding a spot to operate has become a challenge in and of itself.
Vendors can’t operate within 18 inches of a curb, within 50 feet of another sidewalk vendor, within 10 feet of an outdoor dining or patio area, within 500 feet of any permitted special event, street fair or farmers’ market, etc.
Food trucks in Carlsbad have a few of these same restrictions, but also can’t stay parked in one place for more than 60 minutes, can’t park anywhere with a speed limit greater than 25 mph, can’t park within 100 feet of another food truck vendor and can’t park within 25 feet of any intersection, driveway, building entrance, fire hydrant/fire escape or outdoor commercial dining/patio area.
Kristina Ray, communication and engagement director for Carlsbad, said the city passed the ordinance “to be in compliance with state law,” also adding that they took the concerns of brick-and-mortar stores into consideration when crafting the regulations.
“What we heard from our business community … were some concerns about whether this could potentially bring in more competition to brick-and-mortar stores, but we did work with our businesses and business associations to try to craft it in a way where they felt more comfortable that it was a little bit more separation in locations,” Ray said. “We worked hard to craft it in a way, within the law, that we could address the concerns of our brick-and-mortar businesses and still comply with the law and provide opportunities for people who want those kinds of businesses.”
However, state law makes it clear that perceived competition is not a basis for restricting sidewalk vendors.
Heriberto Gonzalez is the owner of El Habanero Street Tacos, a food truck that he operates in Carlsbad. He said it was initially very difficult for him to understand all the rules and regulations the city had because English is his second language.
“The thing is right now on the streets, there’s some issues with the city, they request a lot of things. If you park somewhere, they kick you out,” he said. “It was hard for me when I started in the beginning, because you need to find out all the rules, and when you don’t know much English, you don’t understand.”
Gonzalez, who was born in Mexico, came to America with a dream of owning his own business, but faced a lot of obstacles along the way, including in Escondido, where he originally tried to set up shop.
There, he was told he could only operate the food truck if he obtained a permit to operate on private property and entered into a formal agreement with another business to let him park there. Once he did that, he was pushed out by neighboring businesses because they said he was stealing their customers.
He decided to try his luck in Carlsbad, but quickly discovered the restrictive regulations for parking on the street. Fortunately, he found opportunities with a few businesses that would allow him to park in their parking lots for free and sell his food. He now operates in the parking lots of a Lowe’s store and a local brewing company.
He said he is grateful to have found these opportunities that allowed him to stay in business, but he knows of others who couldn’t keep up with the changing laws and decided to give up and look elsewhere for income.
Other sidewalk vendors and food trucks have opted into a similar business model as Gonzalez, like Copper Kings Burgers in Oceanside, which has partnered with different breweries in the area that allow it to operate out of their parking lots. They have also leaned more into the catering side of their business.
Barry Dunham, one of the owners of a food truck called Pizza Trolley, said he got a permit with the County of San Diego to be able to operate in more places, but getting that license is difficult and the county is strict with who they give those licenses to.
Even with the license, however, Dunham said it seems impossible to park anywhere on the street in Del Mar. He added that Oceanside is also very restrictive for sidewalk vendors and food trucks.
He said they now mostly partner with other businesses and events to sell their food more easily. Right now, they have an agreement with the Carlsbad Flower Fields for a few months.
Other sidewalk vendors who used to rely heavily on their businesses for income have had to settle with selling their products once or twice a week at local farmer’s markets.
Kirk Mundt, Oceanside’s code enforcement manager, said the city adopted the ordinance to protect the health and safety of the community.
“The law permitted it throughout the state, and if you don’t have any time, place and manner restrictions, it’s kind of a free-for-all,” Mundt said. “We wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be any health and safety concerns, that we wouldn’t have unnecessary impacts to local businesses… we wanted to be able to maintain the character of Oceanside.”
“It’s a balance between allowing this activity, which we’re required to by law, but also making it reasonable for people to make this type of income while also maintaining the recreational atmosphere of Oceanside,” he continued.
Escondido is in the drafting stages of its own sidewalk vendor ordinance, which will most likely impact the vendors that operate in the city now. But even without strict regulations, vendors have felt pressure to prove that they are not a threat to the brick-and-mortar businesses in the area.
Julio Garcia, who operates Reina’s Shop in Escondido, said the permit process in Escondido is not difficult, but it relies on proving that your business won’t have a negative impact on the nearby businesses.
As more cities across the state consider adopting sidewalk vending ordinances, critics say they are harmful to people who are trying to take their first steps into entrepreneurship. And many argue that they are disproportionately impacting low-income and immigrant communities.
Opponents have also pointed out how punitive they can be, with some cities, like Carlsbad and Solana Beach, threatening a citation and a $100 fine for the first violation. There’s no mention of a warning in either of these ordinances.
But Carlsbad has not issued any citations or fines to vendors, Ray said, adding that the city gives warnings to allow vendors to comply.
Patricia Mondragon, the regional policy manager for Alliance San Diego, said they, or even the vendors themselves, aren’t necessarily opposed to regulations altogether, but that most cities’ ordinances are too strict, too punitive and too complicated.
“Something we have been seeing with a lot of these ordinances in the region, and a similar situation in San Diego, is this process of putting the cart before the horse,” Mondragon said. “We are passing all these ordinances without really doing any significant data collection as to what the economic impact is going to be in our region and the impact to already marginalized communities that use this as a source of income.”
She brought up San Marcos as an example, which almost approved a vendor ordinance last year, but the council decided to table the issue after receiving backlash from advocacy groups and vendors in the community who said the regulations were too restrictive.
Many of those opposed brought up the lack of studies, coordination or discussion with any actual sidewalk vendors. San Marcos has not revisited the ordinance or shown any indication of starting discussions with vendors.
It remains to be seen how the creation of more of these ordinances statewide will impact the sidewalk vending and food truck businesses as we know it.