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San Diego street vendor ordinance delayed again

A vendor sets up shop at Children’s Pool Plaza in La Jolla in 2019.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The effort was headed for a vote Dec. 14, but the new City Council president sends the proposed law back to the council’s economic development committee.

Controversial efforts to crack down on street vendors in San Diego suffered another setback when new City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera canceled a council hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 14, on long-awaited new legislation.

“Our office did not receive a draft of the street vending ordinance as of the deadline for it to be docketed for public review along with the rest of the agenda for Dec. 14,” Elo-Rivera said. “As of today [Dec. 9], we have still not yet received a draft of the ordinance.”

As a result, Elo-Rivera pulled the item from the agenda and sent the issue back to the council’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which means a delay of at least a few weeks and possibly a few months. No date has been set for the proposal to be presented to the economic development panel.

It’s at least the fifth time that potential new limits on vendors have been delayed since the state passed a law in 2018 aiming to encourage street vending as a new class of small business.

Merchant groups in San Diego say the city badly needs a new vending law to address what they say is unfair competition and illegal dumping of trash by upstart vendors in several areas of the city, including coastal communities such as La Jolla. They say it’s crucial for that new law to be in place by next summer’s tourism season.

Advocates for street vendors say critics have exaggerated the dangers and chaos created by the vendors and that those complaining are mostly businesses frustrated that they are facing new competition from vendors.

The La Jolla Parks & Beaches group voted Dec. 6 to send a letter to the council asking for a ban on such vending in coastal parks.

Ahead of a San Diego City Council hearing next week to review a proposed sidewalk vending ordinance, the La Jolla Parks & Beaches group voted to send a letter to the council asking for a ban on such vending in coastal parks.

“The current problem we are seeing at La Jolla’s coastline parks and beaches, especially at the Children’s Pool and Scripps Park, is that the vending has taken over the beach entrances, the pedestrian pathways, destroyed landscaping and taken away the public’s use of these natural resources,” said LJP&B Vice President Bob Evans.

But artist Jordan McGinnis, who has been painting local beach scenes since the 1990s, said “to completely remove everyone makes it difficult for artists and artisans to make a living. We add value to the community by making handmade goods. We should be allowed to vend in public.”

The delay in the ordinance is frustrating because without a law in place, the city Police Department and county health department are unable and unwilling to conduct enforcement on unruly vendors, according to Michael Trimble, head of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, a downtown San Diego business group.

San Diego police Community Relations Officer David Surwilo told the Ocean Beach Town Council in July that his department’s hands are tied regarding street vendors until some local legislation is in place.

“At this point, unfortunately, it is not a police issue because there is no law,” Surwilo said. “We need some sort of common-sense regulation.”

Trimble said merchants don’t want to criminalize vending, they just don’t want vendors to have an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar businesses — particularly restaurants — because one group has to follow certain rules while the other doesn’t.

“Let’s have vending, but let’s have everyone playing on the same level playing field,” Trimble said.

Amid that ongoing battle, multiple city officials have tried and failed to craft compromise legislation that would appease angry merchants without stifling the emerging vendor community, which is made up mostly of minorities.

The latest effort has been led by council member Jennifer Campbell, who took over the city’s proposed street vendor ordinance last spring and promised a new law would be unveiled in October.

Campbell, whose District 2 includes communities such as Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach that have been significantly affected by vendors, announced this fall that the legislation would be delayed a few months. But she gave merchant groups hope by stipulating that a vote was scheduled for Dec. 14.

Though the legislation was not unveiled, people familiar with Campbell’s efforts said the proposal would ban vendors in some sensitive areas and encourage vendors to take classes on health, safety and entrepreneurism.

In late November, Campbell’s staff issued a “notice of hearing” for the Dec. 14 meeting. In response to a San Diego Union-Tribune request at that time to see the proposed law, a Campbell spokesman said “there are still some late adjustments being made to the ordinance that need to clear the city attorney’s office.”

Those delays continued into December, and Elo-Rivera, who replaced Campbell as council president on Dec. 6, said three days later that the problems finalizing the proposal made canceling the scheduled vote the right move.

“Given the importance of the topic and to be consistent with our commitment to transparency, we believe it is important for the council and the public to have sufficient time to analyze the proposed ordinance and its impacts,” he said.

People look at jewels and crystals being sold by a street vendor in Ocean Beach in 2019.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said the latest delay makes sense, though he “remains committed to ensuring that the city has an ordinance in place as quickly as possible that provides pathways to micro entrepreneurship while protecting public health and safety.”

While advocates of vendors say they welcome new city legislation focused on gray areas in state law, they want any policy proposal to be based on data and analysis instead of knee-jerk reactions. They also say the rules should vary by neighborhood.

Dike Anyiwo, a public policy advisor for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important to get some legislation on the books to start the inevitable process of tinkering with the new law based on its impact.

“The chamber is very much in support of having rules on the books,” he said. “The chamber is not here to constrict the marketplace. We want to make sure there is clarity.”

— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon and freelance writer Steven Mihailovich contributed to this report.