Montville — The Town Council will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. on April 14 about loosening regulations on vendors and peddlers, reviving a year-old controversy.
Current regulations prohibit vendors from operating carts within 1 mile of a permanent business that sells similar products. Last March, Montville business owners spoke vehemently at a public hearing against removing that distance requirement, and the council sent the ordinance to the Planning and Zoning and Economic Development commissions for further revision.
At this week's meeting, the council voted to reduce the distance requirement to 500 feet and to send the issue to a public hearing — against the recommendations of both the Economic Development Commission, which suggested a compromise of a one-half mile buffer zone, and the Planning and Zoning Commission, which did not support any reduction of the 1-mile requirement.
Republican Tom McNally was the only councilor to vote against the changes, saying "I think we all know" why the distance is decreasing. McNally was referring to his belief, shared by several people involved in Montville politics, that the Democrats on the Town Council were revising the ordinance to benefit former Democratic Town Councilor Gary Murphy.
Murphy, who owns a hot dog cart and wanted to set it up near a gas station on Route 32, was denied a permit to do business in that location because of the distance requirement.
Murphy could not be reached for comment on the issue Thursday, but he did acknowledge at the public hearing last March that he is "the guy who started everything here and got everybody all riled up."
He resigned from the Town Council in January 2013, the same month the changes to the vendor regulations made it onto the council's agenda.
Proposing an ordinance with only a 500-foot distance requirement is "a slap in the face to everybody," McNally said, noting that not only the two commissions but also Town Planner Marcia Vlaun supported larger distances between vendors and established businesses.
Councilor and former liaison to the Economic Development Commission Chuck Longton, who proposed the 500-foot boundary, said the EDC really had been in favor of a shorter distance than the one-half mile proposal that made it to the Town Council.
Longton said one member of the EDC was "adamant in the extreme" about keeping the original regulation, which eventually wore down other EDC members and resulted in them accepting the one-half mile compromise "out of frustration."
The 1-mile buffer, Longton said, "effectively shuts out completely street vendors of any kind."
Former Town Councilor Dana McFee, a Republican, had a different view of the 500-foot limit.
"The whole thing was done specific to Gary Murphy," said McFee, who also owns a hot dog cart but is opposed to the changes in the vending regulations. McFee said he couldn't help noticing that the location where Murphy wants to sell his hot dogs — between the Mobil station and the McDonald's on Route 32 — is just under half a mile away from Friendly's Pizza, which sells hot dogs.
Town Council Chairman Joseph Jaskiewicz firmly denied that the changes are designed to benefit Murphy. Although Murphy's hot dog stand may have started the conversation, that's just a coincidence, he said.
"It just takes one person sometimes to get things going," Jaskiewicz said. Once councilors approached the ordinance with an open mind, they decided to change the distance requirement because it would be best for businesses in town, he explained.
"I think the mile's too long," said Jaskiewicz, a former mayor who joined the council when Murphy resigned. "I don't feel in my heart that (vendors are) going to impact" brick and mortar business.
Other councilors agreed that the changes would improve Montville's economy. Democrat Tim May spoke in favor of the 500-foot distance, saying it benefits the "little guy," and that Montville should have less restrictive business regulations in general.
McNally, meanwhile, said permanent business owners will remain opposed to the changes, and Democrats are embarrassing themselves by raising the issue again.
Vendors "junked up the town" in the 1980s, said McNally, by increasing litter, clogging up traffic and hurting brick and mortar businesses.
"It's not a good thing for the Town of Montville," he said.