A family shops at a vending truck on North Spurgeon Street in Santa Ana. (Photo by: Amy DePaul)

Santa Ana food trucks will soon be required to follow a series of new restrictions on where and how they operate, after City Council members Tuesday passed an ordinance regulating them.

“These are not regulations that are from the city. These are state laws that we need to make sure that these businesses” comply with,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez. “We have a responsibility as a city council to do that.”

The topic is a controversial one in Santa Ana, where food and other vending trucks have become common in the low-income neighborhoods they serve. Many residents rely on them for convenient access to food and household goods, while others are upset about trucks operating in front of homes and limiting visibility for pedestrians.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that the city’s past regulations in the 1990s and 2000s were struck down by courts as illegally overreaching.

With the new ordinance, city officials say they sought to strike a balance that both respected the trucks’ important role in the city, while reducing some of the negative impacts.

Among other rules, the new regulations effectively require the trucks to move every hour when operating in residential areas and many other places. 

To stay longer than an hour, the ordinance requires truck operators to get written permission from the owner of a near-by property for truck employees to use a restroom within 200 feet that’s been inspected and approved by health inspectors.

Other requirements include a ban on having chairs or any other objects along sidewalks, as well as prohibitions: against operating along any street with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour or higher; within 500 feet of a park, school, playground or community center; and within 100 feet of an intersection or crosswalk.

(Click here for a full description of the new regulations.)

City staff and council members said the regulations, including the bathroom requirement, largely implement existing state laws for food trucks that are designed to protect public health and safety.

Several residents spoke on the issue during public comments, with viewpoints divided among those who see the trucks as providing a much-needed service and those who see some of the trucks as causing problems like poor visibility for pedestrians crossing the street.

“This is a safety and health issue that needs to be taken care of,” said Irma Macias, a longtime Santa Ana resident and president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Association. Local residents, she said don’t want food trucks in front of their homes, “because this is a business. And they should be in commercial areas, not in [residential areas].”

Albert Hernandez, who owns a food truck in Santa Ana, said not all of the trucks are causing problems, and that he and his 10 employees have been doing things the right way.

The trucks are “part of our community. The trucks have been here for so long,” he said.

Another supporter of the food trucks, activist Naui Huitzilopochtli, said the concerns reminded him of Marco Gutierrez, founder of Latinos for Trump, who said in September his culture is “imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

“I don’t mind having taco trucks on every corner,” Huitzilopochtli told the council.

The regulations ended up passing on a 5-0 vote, with Mayor Miguel Pulido abstaining and Councilman Vicente Sarmiento absent.

The only change to city staff’s proposed regulations was to reduce all violations of the ordinance from misdemeanors down to monetary fines, a move that was requested by Councilman Jose Solorio.

In many of Santa Ana’s working-class neighborhoods, the trucks are effectively the local grocery store, providing essential household goods and food in underserved areas described as “food deserts” because they lack nearby brick-and-mortar grocery stores.

That means for many local residents, the trucks are their most convenient access to healthy produce.

But they come with their own set of public safety and health issues. City officials say food trucks are targeted with graffiti, generate trash and litter, sell cigarettes, and put pedestrians at risk by blocking views at crosswalks and intersections.

Additionally, the trucks have been cited as contributing to Santa Ana’s high rate of childhood obesity, with over a third of the city’s children overweight. Many sell candy and junk food to children, including near schools.

The new regulations will:

  • Require access to a county health department-inspected restroom within 200 feet when vending for more than one hour at a location.
  • Prohibit operating along any street with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour or higher
  • Prohibit food truck vending within 100 feet of a crosswalk
  • Prohibit chairs, tables, and other items on sidewalks or other public right-of-way
  • Prohibit parking a food truck overnight outside of an approved storage area
  • Prohibit vending within 500 feet of a school, park, community center, or public playground
  • Prohibit most lighting and amplified sound
  • Require trash cans within 50 feet of the truck

Many residents have opposed the new regulations, saying they penalize street vendors who are simply trying to make ends meet.

OC Weekly publisher Gustavo Arellano, in particular, has criticized city officials as “fear-mongering” with claims of traffic hazards and drug problems linked to the trucks.

It’s “yet another attempt to turn SanTana into a hipster paradise meant for everyone but the working class,” Arellano wrote recently. He later published an editorial cartoon portraying Martinez as trying to crack down on Mexican culture through the ordinance.

Martinez rejected that portrayal Tuesday as “far from the truth,” saying brick-and-mortar restaurants have regulations and the council is simply trying to do that for food trucks as well.

The city’s history in regulating food trucks has been problematic, with multiple courts rejecting previous ordinances.

In 1994, the City Council passed a law requiring trucks to move every 30 minutes and not park close to intersections, schools, parks, recreation areas and other vending vehicles. A Superior Court judge threw out the law in 1997, saying “the entire ordinance must fall.”

A later city council attempted to pass similar regulations in 2004 and 2005, this time mandating the trucks move every 90 minutes and forcing them to stop vending by 8 p.m. After another round of lawsuits, both state and federal courts issued injunctions against the rules.

This time around, city staff say, they’re confident the new ordinance will stand up in court. City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said that’s largely due to the city now backing up its regulations with health and safety findings, particularly related to pedestrian safety issues.

The regulations will return to the council later this month or next month for a second approval before going into effect.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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