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Food truck owners to file lawsuit against city

Food trucks 600 block W. Chicago |  Al Podgorski~ Sun-Times

Food trucks on the 600 block of W. Chicago | Al Podgorski~ Sun-Times

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Updated: December 15, 2012 6:23AM

Accusing Mayor Rahm Emanuel of protecting restaurants at their expense, food truck owners plan to file a lawsuit Wednesday challenging key aspects of the Chicago ordinance that authorized mobile food trucks with cooking on board.

The Circuit Court suit takes aim at the requirement that food trucks stay 200 feet away from stationary restaurants and that food trucks install GPS devices on board so City Hall can track their movements.

Robert Frommer, an attorney at the Washington, D.C.,-based Institute for Justice, said the 200-foot buffer violates the due process guarantees outlined in the Illinois Constitution.

“It exists for one reason and one reason only: to protect a few, politically-connected restaurants from competition,” Frommer said.

“That’s not a legitimate purpose. Government exists to protect public health and safety. Government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. That’s the job of consumers.”

The ordinance also created designated “food stands” exempt from the 200-foot rule — with space for two food trucks — in congested, parking-starved areas.

But Frommer branded the stands “an inadequate solution to a problem of the government’s own making” created by the 200-foot rule.

The lawsuit further contends that the GPS requirement violates the search and seizure provision of the Illinois Constitution. “Before it can conduct a search, government has to have a legitimate reason to undertake that search. Simply protecting one class of business from competition by another is not legitimate,” he said.

The lawsuit is expected to be filed on behalf of the owners of three mobile food trucks who claim their hands have been unfairly tied by the new ordinance.

Greg Burke and his fiancée Kristin Casper run the “Schnitzel King” food truck. Laura Pekarik runs “Cupcakes for Courage” and also owns the Courageous Bakery in Elmhurst.

“I personally don’t feel that the government has a right to tell me how to run my business,” Casper said.

“Why can’t we have our fair share, too. Why can’t we be in the Loop? Why do we have to have these GPS devices on our vehicles? Why does the city have to follow us around? It feels like Big Brother to me. We have to get them to change the law.”

Burke said business has plummeted since the ordinance took effect.

“All of the food trucks are huddled in a few areas of the city. Our customers demand us to be in the Loop, where there is no legal parking. We get tweets, [that say], ‘Why can’t you come here?’” he said.

“They put a lot of clamps on our hands on how to run our business. The fine is $2,000, which is utterly ridiculous. We can’t understand why they’re doing this to us besides protectionism for brick and mortars.”

Pekarik said there are 60 licensed food trucks vying for two legal spaces at the foot stand at Dearborn and Monroe.

“The 200-foot rule should be removed and we shouldn’t be required to have GPS. It’s like an ankle bracelet. Those are for criminals,” she said.

“We can’t really park anywhere in the city. ... There’s restaurants next door to each other. Two hundred feet is a far-reaching distance. Most of our customers are in the downtown area. We can’t go where our customers want us.”

Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew was tight-lipped about the lawsuit. He would only say that, after “decades of debate,” the City Council “has finally passed a commonsense ordinance that will allow this new industry to flourish and expand Chicago’s great culinary offerings.”

Earlier this year, Emanuel brokered an end to the two year-stalemate that had stunted Chicago’s growth as a culinary capital to jump-start job creation here that already leads the nation.

To appease brick-and-mortar restaurants concerned about the threat to their businesses, the ordinance required mobile food trucks to: set up shop at least 200 feet away from any licensed restaurant; be in a location where they could “legally park” and not remain in any one location for more than two hours at a time.

The ordinance also created designated “food stands” exempt from the 200-foot buffer — with space for two food trucks — in congested, parking-starved areas.

The two-hour parking limit also applied at those stands, with a minimum of five in each of six designated community areas: the Loop, the Near West Side, Lake View, Lincoln Park, Near North and West Town. Food stands may also be built in other parts of the city.

The compromise made neither side particularly happy.

Food truck owners complained about the 200-foot rule, the food stands in high-density areas and about GPS devices that could be used to impose $1,000-to-$2,000 fines, four times higher than the fine for parking at a fire hydrant.

Some restaurant owners were equally upset. They were afraid that rolling restaurants that don’t pay property taxes would cut into their business at a time when many brick and mortar restaurants that do pay property taxes are struggling to stay alive.

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