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State court favors city in dispute over food-truck rules

Food trucks parked on Wacker Dr. between Monroe St. and Adams St. at lunch hour. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A state appeals court panel has unanimously rejected a lawsuit that challenges the city of Chicago’s five-year-old ordinance regulating food trucks.

In a unanimous ruling issued Monday, the three justices of the 1st District Appellate Court of Illinois found no reason to strike down the ordinance Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed and aldermen approved in 2012.

The rules, which are deeply unpopular with Chicago’s food truck owners, restrict the “mobile food vendors” from operating within 200 feet of restaurants.

“The city has a critical interest in maintaining a thriving food service industry, of which brick-and-mortar establishments are an essential part,” wrote appeals court Justice Sheldon A. Harris.

“The 200-foot exclusion represents a rational means of ensuring the general welfare of the city and is neither arbitrary nor unreasonable,” Harris added.

Food-truck interests filed the suit against the city just two weeks after passage of the ordinance by the City Council in July 2012, court records show.

The suit also challenges the requirement that the trucks be equipped with GPS tracking devices, so the city can track their locations if officials want to do that.

A Cook County judge sided with the city a year ago. The lone remaining plaintiff in the case — the owner of a food truck that sells cupcakes — appealed that ruling.

This week’s appellate court ruling handed the city victory on both issues in dispute, entirely agreeing with the Dec. 5, 2016, ruling of county Judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos.

“Both the 200-foot restriction and the GPS requirement are constitutionally valid,” Harris wrote in a 25-page opinion also backed by the other two appellate justices that heard the case, Daniel J. Pierce and Mary L. Mikva.

In a statement Tuesday, Emanuel administration officials said, “We are pleased the court upheld our 200-foot buffer, which allows space for both restaurants and food trucks to thrive. And because mobile businesses add a layer of regulatory complexity, GPS will greatly support our regulatory efforts and use data to ensure city requirements are met.”

The Virginia-based Institute for Justice provided food-truck interests in the case with free legal assistance for years. The lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the case did not reply to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Institute for Justice has ties to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers — Charles and David — who are among the largest financiers of Republican politicians and right-wing causes in the country. The octogenarian brothers control Koch Industries, the country’s second-biggest privately held company, and they staunchly oppose government regulation of business.

The right-wing Illinois Policy Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the food trucks in appellate court in April.

A 2016 investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 Chicago’s I-Team found food trucks were frequently breaking the city rules without consequence because enforcement by the Emanuel administration was lax.

The Sun-Times and ABC7 found food trucks routinely staying far longer than the two-hour limit on doing business in the same spot, and often parking in tow zones, turn lanes or bus stops. Yet, few were issued citations in the first four years after the ordinance was approved.

Emanuel responded to the reports by ordering a crackdown, saying, “There’s a breakdown in the system.” City officials quickly issued a flurry of expensive tickets to truck owners accused of violating the ordinance.

The Sun-Times and ABC7 investigation also revealed that the city had never asked any food truck to provide GPS data under the provision of the ordinance that has been challenged in court.

After a long debate, city officials in 2012 repealed a prohibition against cooking on trucks, a move that ushered in a new wave of food entrepreneurs competing for places to park.

The Emanuel administration set up dozens of designated curbside “mobile food vendor stands” where the newly licensed trucks could operate.

Nevertheless, many food trucks complained that the new rules were devised to favor restaurants and made it impossible for food trucks to succeed in Chicago. Critics have said Chicago’s food-truck regulations are the most stringent in the country.

The suit against the city was filed by the owners of two trucks: Cupcakes for Courage and the Schnitzel King, which went out of business and eventually stopped participating in the case.

They argued that the GPS requirement was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and said the city had set up too few designated food-truck stands downtown, where the truck owners would have the best chance to operate thriving businesses.

You can read the entire appeals court opinion here.