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San Diego council approves ordinance to put restrictions on street vendors

Vendors' tables surround the veterans monument at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza recently.
(Milan Kovacevic)

Supporters say the measure’s regulations strike the right balance; critics say it is too aggressive and has racist overtones.

A San Diego ordinance to partially ban street vendors in parks and certain pedestrian-heavy areas received approval from the City Council on an 8-1 vote March 1.

The legislation, which takes effect Wednesday, June 1, also requires vendors to obtain city permits and institutes fines and possible impoundment for rules violations considered significant.

The law also creates “entrepreneurship zones” — places where vendors would get chances to flourish together with possible financial help from the city. Locations for those zones have not been chosen.

The legislation was crafted primarily by Venus Molina, chief of staff for Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Ocean Beach, Point Loma and other coastal areas.

Most of the ordinance will go into effect June 1, but certain portions affecting the coastal zone are subject to review and approval by the California Coastal Commission. The city will work with the commission to determine the scope of the panel’s review and a timeline for its decision.

Supporters of the ordinance called it a balance between fostering vendors as a new class of entrepreneurs and preventing them from damaging the character of parks, beach areas and business districts.

Ocean Beach Town Council President Corey Bruins recently called street vending “the top issue in OB at this point, and it has been for a long time.”

Many Ocean Beach residents and community leaders have grown increasingly restless about crowds of vendors that they say are ruining beach areas such as Veterans Plaza while benefiting from unfair competition with local businesses.

San Diego merchant groups mostly praised the new law. But some lobbied unsuccessfully for more restrictions, such as banning vendors in more areas and requiring them to have insurance.

Advocates for vendors said the ordinance is too punitive and aggressive, emphasizing that it would ban vendors from most profitable high-traffic areas. They also said it has racist overtones because most vendors are immigrants of color.

Councilman Raul Campillo said the new law is crucial because the lack of legislation has allowed irresponsible street vendors to crowd out responsible ones in a “race to the bottom,” where no one is held accountable.

“I fully understand that not everyone is happy with the ordinance and there is still work to do,” he said. “But I’m confident this is the compromise that will get regulations on our books to increase public health and safety while also promoting entrepreneurship among our residents.”

In many of the city’s beach areas and Balboa Park, the ordinance bans vendors only during the busy summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day, instead of year-round.

It also restricts vendor bans to main thoroughfares in some business districts, such as Ocean Beach. Vendors would be allowed to continue operating on the cross streets and side streets in those areas.

Councilman Joe LaCava tried to get the summer ban extended to Oct. 1, but the council rejected that proposal on a 5-4 vote.

Other council members praised the ordinance for successfully walking a fine line.

But Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the new law is overly broad and will lead to uneven enforcement, with vendors in high-traffic areas facing much more scrutiny.

She called some elements of the law “almost deceitful” and attempts to create a “covert ban” on vendors.

Moreno also suggested the law goes beyond regulating health and safety. That would violate state guidelines that allow cities to restrict vendors on those criteria but not to protect brick-and-mortar businesses from competition.

The regulations require vendors to stay minimum distances from specific locations, such as 100 feet from lifeguard stations, 25 feet from all beach access points (stairs, ramps, seawalls,) 50 feet from other vendors, and 500 feet from permitted events and from schools when in use. Each vendor is to be limited to a maximum area of 24 square feet.

“The ordinance as written is restrictive and will make it very difficult for sidewalk vendors to continue to operate,” said Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, a leader of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium.

In addition to restricting where vendors can operate, the new law restricts what they can sell. Prohibited items include alcoholic beverages, tobacco, vaping products, cannabis, pharmaceuticals, live animals and weapons, including knives, guns and explosive devices.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said he empathizes with the immigrants and other vendors the new law may harm economically, noting that Nike and Apple started as small, vendor-style businesses.

But Elo-Rivera said the council had to act.

“I’ve been to the beach and I’ve been to Balboa Park and seen those who have taken advantage of the current system,” he said.

Supporters of the law worried that city plans to seek Coastal Commission approval for some of the regulations would delay their implementation west of Interstate 5, resulting in those areas being flooded with vendors from the east, who will face the new rules sooner.

Supporters also urged city officials to prioritize enforcement of the new rules, which will be handled by park rangers and code enforcement officers and not police officers, except in extreme cases.

“Enforcement is a huge thing for us, and we hope you will make sure this ordinance gets enforced,” said Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association.

For more details on the new law, visit sandiego.gov/sidewalkvending.

Ocean Beach Town Council board members expressed discontent at their February meeting about the process for developing the ordinance.

Bruins said there was a lack of opportunity for the community to give input on the law between June, when Campbell’s office was first tasked with composing the ordinance, and February, when its contents were made public.

“We didn’t do the rounds that we normally do,” Molina said at the meeting. “It was either do the rounds of town halls and meetings or try and get it done so there would be some relief by the summer. It seems like we skipped through it, but our marching orders were very clear: ‘Get it done.’”

Campbell said another hurdle in the drafting process was the legal review the ordinance was subject to. “It has to pass by the lawyers,” she said.

California Senate Bill 946 permits local authorities to regulate vending but prohibits them from banning all vendors or imposing criminal penalties on them.

“State law trumps our laws, so we had to fit into the meaning and desire [of SB 946],” Campbell said.

However, OBTC trustee Gary Gartner said it is incumbent on the council member to meet with her district.

“The issue is, there’s not a collaborative process when we work with you,” Gartner said.

Molina said a group is being formed in an effort to fine-tune the ordinance as it is implemented.

“There is an annual review, so the conversation doesn’t stop here,” Molina said. “I hope we can continue to discuss this policy.”


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