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Norwich - After becoming a popular take-out venue this summer, the new Yantic Mobile Food Park will shrink to just one or two vendors by the end of this week.
Robert Currier's growing business spot has puzzled city zoning officials and led to complaints from restaurant owners throughout the city that the vendors were being allowed to set up shop at a small vacant lot at 276 W. Town St. without zoning approval and paying only the $250 annual Norwich vendor permit fee.
Zoning Enforcement Officer Tianne Curtis said she has been in contact with Currier since he first brought his Rolling Tomato trailer to a defunct nearby gas station at 262 W. Town St. Vendors are not subject to zoning regulations, Curtis said, as long as the facilities are mobile, on wheels and removable.
But when Currier bought the vacant unbuildable commercially zoned lot at 276 W. Town St. last fall for $25,000, the operation started to grow rapidly. Currier paved a small parking lot, invited several other vendors to the site, poured a slab of concrete, set up picnic tables with umbrellas and set up a wooden fence to mark off the spot. A large sign "Yantic Mobile Food Park" hangs from the fence. An outdoor electrical panel provides power to the property.
At its peak operation, the park included Uncle D's Blazin' BBQ, Rolling Tomato, Italian Express, Rollinred's Mobile Kitchen and East Coast Tacos.
Curtis said the combination of activity presented a problem, as there is nothing in city zoning regulations that allows a mobile food park to set up on private property. Vendor permits mostly involve temporary setups on public property or at special events, city Planning Director Peter Davis said.
Curtis sent Currier a notice of zoning violation Aug. 6 and asked that most vendors leave the property by Sept. 6. She would allow Rolling Tomato to stay along with one "guest vendor."
Last week, Italian Express remained at the property, and Currier did steady business out of his largest trailer - which he bought on eBay - while three smaller Rolling Tomato trailers were parked on the lot. He uses them for catered events or to travel to fairs. He said he asked the other vendors to leave before the Sept. 6 deadline to show "good faith" with the city that he is working with officials to meet regulations.
Both the owner and the zoning enforcement officer said they have a good working relationship and said the issue should not be characterized as a "zoning dispute" or confrontation.
"He and I have always had a good working relationship," Curtis said.
"There really is no fight," Currier said. "We're just going through the process."
Currier has several possible zoning options and has chosen to apply for a zoning text amendment to city zoning regulations that would define and allow mobile food parks to operate on private property.
Jason Vincent, vice president of the Norwich Community Development Corp., has offered his assistance to write the draft regulation to be submitted to the City Council, which serves as the zoning board in Norwich.
Vincent said last week that he has written the first draft and hopes to submit it to the city corporation counsel for possible revisions within the next month.
Vincent said Norwich could be on the cusp of a growing national trend. The first reference he could find to a mobile food park was in 2010 in Los Angeles.
"This is a business incubator operation," Vincent said. "This is a trend nationally. We have an opportunity to capture some of that marketplace in a small city. We believe if he is successful, customers might clamor for a full indoor restaurant."
Currier already is working toward that possibility. Currier started Rolling Tomato as a mobile outfit four years ago, but then opened a conventional pizza restaurant in Groton. He now has eight employees and four trailers, including the large 28-foot trailer he uses year-round at the Yantic Mobile Food Park.
On Saturday, Currier posted the winning bid of $84,001 in a bank foreclosure auction on the property adjacent to the food park at 32 Yantic Flats Road. The property has a commercial building, a house and a shed. At first, he plans to clean up the property, do landscaping and expand the mobile vending operation. Eventually, he would like to turn the commercial building into a pizza restaurant.
He still plans to seek the zoning regulation change that would clearly define mobile food parks in the city, but for now, the zoning officer has allowed Rolling Tomato to remain open along with one guest vendor at that property. He envisions two vendors also occupying his newly purchased adjacent property once that is ready.
A second step would be to create a commercial kitchen inside the commercial building and make it available to vendors on a rental basis to prepare food. He would use it as well to support his concession trailer business.
Eventually in what he called the third step, Currier hopes to open a pizza restaurant at the second property, with the mobile food park operating next door if the proposed zoning regulation change is successful.