From Los Angeles to New York City, in most cities across the US you can find all kinds of food and beverages without walking into a restaurant. Sidewalk and roaming vendors are there to make it easy for you to get anything from hot dogs to gourmet cupcakes. However, it's not always easy - or cheap - for them to make things easy for you.

Legal Maze

Probably since the days when hawkers sold snake oil out of covered wagons, cities have required street vendors to hold a license or permit in order to sell their goods from carts parked on sidewalks. They serve the two main purposes of keeping the sidewalks and streets from becoming too congested and generating revenue or income for the city.

In 2010, street vendors seem to be on the increase, and there's a boom in roaming vendors - those who drive in around town and stop for a few minutes here and there and then move on. In many cities, these roamers don't have to get the permits or licenses stationary street vendors are required to buy.

Things are changing a bit, though. For example, in Belmont, Massachusetts, new rules passed in May 2010 limit the amount of time mobile or roaming vendors can sit in one place. The rules have sparked a battle among several ice cream truck drivers. They're all trying to make a living and want equal time in some of the city's hot spots, like public swimming pools and parks.

Things aren't going too well, though. Drivers are filing police reports and complaints with the city against each other, claiming some aren't obeying the time limit (it's 20 minutes). Some claim drivers make agreements with each other to hold onto a spot until a partner-driver can move into it ahead of another rival truck.

A few hundred miles away, Philadelphia has laws dating back to horse-and-buggy days that restrict where roaming vendors can operate within the city. These old rules are causing problems for roamers. A city agency has the power to confiscate the vehicles of vendors who sell in the city's restricted zones. The problem is, according to one vendor who faced confiscation, the laws are nearly impossible to understand.

Sometimes authorities notice roamers in areas they’re not supposed to be. In many cases, though, permit-holding stationary street vendors protect their turf by calling the authorities and reporting the violations.

Keep it Legal

Know how the laws work in your area to keep your vending business up and running. Check with the local business licensing agency in your area for more specifics. In the meantime, here are some things you can do and some things to look for:

  • Most vendors must have a permit from the local or state health department
  • You usually have to carry a minimum amount of liability insurance
  • Typically you need a separate business permit or license from the city or town you're working in, and you may need one for each cart or vehicle you use. The permits usually expire after one year, so make sure you renew them
  • Check to see if your city or town as a program like the one in Cincinnati, Ohio where you can buy a special permit allowing you to stop and park your roaming vehicle in designated parking spaces
  • Violating the vending laws may mean a fine, confiscation of your vehicle, or suspension or even cancellation of your permit or license

City's Duty

Perhaps the most important thing to do is to get some legal advice if you have any questions about or don't understand the vending laws. A lawyer usually can help untangle the web. If not, she may be able to help in another way.

As a general rule, lawmakers have a duty to make sure the laws they create are clear and understandable. While ignorance of the law usually is no excuse for violating the law, the law has to be reasonably clear to let you know what you're doing is in fact against the law.

For instance, a vendor like the one in Philadelphia who made a good faith effort to understand the vending laws may have a good legal claim for a refund of the fine she paid for violating the laws. The laws are so confusing that she - a former lawyer - and her husband - another lawyer - couldn't make heads or tails of them, she claims.

Perhaps by taking legal action, or at least by raising the issue before the city lawmakers, the city's vending laws will be re-written and clarified.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I sell or transfer my vending license to someone else if I decide to change careers?
  • Can a city require me to name it as an insured on liability insurance I'm required to buy as a street vendor?
  • Do I need a special driver's license, such as a Commercial Driver's License (CDL)?

Tagged as: Zoning, Planning and Land Use, street vendors, roaming vendors, zoning planning land use lawyer