Possible hurdles to San Diego street vendor ordinance raise frustration in Ocean Beach

Streetside vendors sell their wares in Ocean Beach in 2019.
Streetside vendors sell their wares in Ocean Beach in 2019.

The latest hurdles in drafting a San Diego street vendor ordinance had many people attending the April meeting of the Ocean Beach Town Council bristling at the possibility of delays in the city taking charge of a situation residents deemed chaotic.

Reporting on recent communications, Town Council board member Cameron Reid referenced intractable issues, including street vendors, when he said: “I’ve received a few ‘goodbye’ emails [from] families who are leaving OB — taxpaying citizens who have kind of had enough. It’s really sad because these are individuals who have volunteered for us, participated with us and in organizations like our own. They advocate and they advocate and they’re just tired. ... It’s a sad loss, but I don’t blame them.”

Kohta Zaiser, Mayor Todd Gloria’s representative for City Council District 2, which includes Ocean Beach, explained the obstacles in the drive for an ordinance regulating street vendors by summer.

After gathering input from vendors across the city and submitting the results to a policy team at the end of March, the effort was deemed insufficient by at least nine community-based organizations and street vending advocates, Zaiser said.

“They essentially sent us a letter requesting for us to put a pause on the ordinance so that more public outreach can be conducted,” he said.

Zaiser also noted that City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office said any draft ordinance would require approval from the California Coastal Commission before adoption.

“You guys are familiar with that long process and how many months that’s going to add to the ordinance,” Zaiser said. “Our policy team is working hard to mitigate their concerns, because we do not believe it needs to go to the Coastal Commission.”

A draft street vending ordinance was proposed in 2019 by then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer and reached the City Council’s economic development committee in February 2020 before becoming engulfed by the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic and shelved.

San Diego police patrol near a sidewalk vendor in Ocean Beach in August.
(Ariana Drehsler)

State law allows local governments to regulate street vendors for “health, safety or welfare” reasons but does not allow them to ban all vendors or levy criminal penalties against them.

Local residents have complained about crowds of vendors in Ocean Beach, many from outside the community, ruining the small park at Veterans Plaza and often hindering access to the beach.

During the Town Council meeting, audience member Beverly McCalla recounted a recent trip to the beach with friends to find 30 to 40 vendors at Veterans Plaza, with a few selling marijuana cigarettes or Jell-O shots laced with alcohol, and wondered why police weren’t enforcing existing laws against such activities.

“That’s not good for our community anywhere,” she said.

Though undercover operations have had limited success against illegal sales at Veterans Plaza, police community relations Officer Michael Hayes said sending uniformed police to the area would merely serve to halt the activity until they left.

“The bigger issue is just the vendor ordinance,” Hayes said. “Whatever comes through, that’s going to clean up the vast majority of the problem.”

Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, said: “There have got to be ways to avoid this. The grounds [at Veterans Plaza] have been destroyed. Is this the future of every park in San Diego? Is that what we’re looking at, that that little park becomes a swap meet? ... If you can’t assure the community that somebody is in control, then we end up with Jell-O shots.”

Zaiser contended the biggest obstacle to an ordinance may be convincing the five new council members elected in November who have no connection to the previous effort and see “the street vending ordinance as only a beach issue.”

“There are really two groups of vendors here. We have our vendors in the beach communities, but they are not the same vendors that are in more inland districts throughout San Diego,” Zaiser said. “Our difficulty, and our job right now, is communicating that difference to folks, because I don’t think they understand how dire and how urgent an issue this is in the Ocean Beach community.”

Town Council board member Aaron Null said, “The entire county comes to the beaches to enjoy them, so it is everyone’s issue.”

Teddy Martinez, District 2 Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell’s representative in Ocean Beach, said preserving some of the space for local use and accommodating beach access is a major concern for Campbell.

“These vendors are, for the most part, super amenable to following rules,” Martinez said. “Right now, unfortunately ... there’s nothing in place.”

OBTC President Mark Winkie voiced his disappointment at the latest wrinkles in a community fabric that he feels is close to unraveling.

“We are desperate to have something done,” Winkie said. “This isn’t something that can just be put off. We need a vending ordinance now, before the summer. If we don’t get one, it’s just going to explode down in the beach area. People have had enough of it.

“We’re not saying you can’t have vending. We’re just saying put together a fair and equitable law that will control and govern it. This is absolutely beyond the pale.”

Looking past COVID

San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher attended the Town Council meeting, speaking about the county’s performance during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as its prospects as the region begins emerging from the crisis.

Fletcher, whose District 4 includes Ocean Beach, spoke optimistically about the county’s proclivity to tackle problems exposed by and predating the pandemic, as well as address issues such as climate change.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announces the creation of a COVID-19 community response fund in March 2020.

As COVID-19 vaccinations increase and case rates decline, Fletcher said the county is primed to meet the state’s goal to drop the tier system for reopening by June 15. He reflected on the board’s tough decisions during the depths of the pandemic with the aim of keeping health care systems, particularly intensive care units, from being overwhelmed.

“Throughout COVID, there was no easy, good choice,” Fletcher said. “We daily faced a dilemma of a bad option and a worse option. So we took the bad option, recognizing that it was still bad but knowing the only other option to us was worse.”

Efforts to contain the disease revealed the flimsiness of county systems and programs addressing health care, homelessness, mental health, substance abuse and other issues, according to Fletcher.

“As we come out of this, I think COVID has shown us a lot of things that we can’t just look away from,” he said. “I think a lot of inequities in our society around access to health care, around underlying conditions, around economic injustice have been highlighted in a very substantive way in COVID. ... If you come out of COVID and not think we need a single-payer, universal health care system, I don’t think you’ve really seen what I’ve seen as we’ve gone through this.”

Fletcher rattled off a number of initiatives launched by the board, including mental health mobile crisis response teams, increasing capacity at treatment centers, allocating $85 million toward homelessness solutions and creating an Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement designed to protect workers.

“We’re working on and trying to move our county in a new direction,” Fletcher said. “Obviously a more progressive one but one that is more engaged and is investing more in helping our communities. For far too long, the board viewed its role exclusively in the unincorporated communities. I believe we have a very serious obligation countywide.”


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