By CJ Dablo
Two industries who want to do business in Signal Hill needed to adjust their public image at Tuesday night’s Planning Commission meeting in order to move forward with the process of changing two key city ordinances. Gourmet food truck operators had an easier time moving forward with the process of changing the city’s regulations. But at this month’s commission meeting, tattoo artists expressed frustration that they had to shake a negative reputation before they could change an ordinance that blocked them from setting up a shop in town, even after a federal appeals court recently ruled that the First Amendment was on the side of the tattoo.
The Planning Commission held separate workshops during its meeting at the City’s Council Chambers on June 14 to encourage public input on the possibility of amending two zoning ordinances that affected two industries. Currently no zoning ordinance regulates gourmet food trucks when they operate on private property, and the city specifically prohibits tattoo studios in the city, according to a city staff report.
Gourmet food trucks
Gourmet food truck operators are distinct from the so-called “roach coach” lunch trucks which largely cater to serving breakfast and lunch to construction workers on an established route, according to a report from Reina Schaetzl, an assistant planner for Signal Hill. Although lunch truck vendors that operated in Signal Hill carried business licenses, the gourmet food trucks had been operating without the City’s business licenses when they planned special events on private commercial property, according to her report.
On Tuesday night, a representative from Got Food Trucks? (gotfoodtrucks.com) specifically advocated for gourmet food trucks. The website’s organizers host street food events at various cities around Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Wendy Watson, one of the volunteer organizers for Got Food Trucks?, explained that her organization partnered with the local Signal Hill Best Buy to create a unique event where hundreds of people gathered to sample the street food offered by a handful of food trucks that parked in the parking lot of the technology store.
The events were marketed through Got Food Trucks? via social networks and word-of-mouth. A portion of the profits from these events supported charitable causes, Watson said. But these events had another advantage. She described how the wait in line for an order that could take 30 minutes would be followed by another long wait to pick up the food. That wait created a community spirit as like-minded “foodies” mingled around the trucks with their families. Some customers even brought their own tables and chairs.
Watson further explained that the events are the main attractions and can provide a boost to local businesses.
“For businesses in the community, [the trucks] can actually bring people in to see the businesses, and I think that that’s a very positive thing that kind of gets lost,” said Watson as she explained how a store would see more foot traffic.
The local Best Buy store itself enjoyed a successful run after hosting several events, according to a City staff report, however, the manager of the store eventually canceled future food truck events when parking and circulation issues became a problem for the store.
About 160 gourmet food operators that are part of Got Food Trucks? are subject to Los Angeles County health codes and receive letter grades just as restaurants do, according to Watson. Food trucks can currently obtain temporary-use permits to operate in the city for up to 60 days, Community Development Director Scott Charney said. However, the organizers behind Got Food Trucks? envisioned having the trucks operate in the city on a regular basis and said that they were unsure of how the City regulated the food trucks when they first organized their events at Best Buy.
The Planning Commission asked City staff to present their recommendations for changes to the zoning ordinance at the next Commission meeting in July. They will be considering, among other details, how to handle business licenses, sales tax and clean-up.
The Planning Commission still had more questions before they could rally behind an effort to change a city zoning ordinance that would allow tattoo shops to operate in the city. They are hoping to review zoning possibilities at July’s Commission meeting as well as seek further City staff and public input at a second workshop on the tattoo issue.
The Planning Commission will have to determine where tattoo businesses can operate and how the City will regulate the businesses.
“This is all conceptual for our city,” said Devon Austin, vice chair for the Planning Commission, indicating that she would like to see visual model scenarios of the zoning possibilities to determine how the city would be affected.
Planning Commissioner Tom Benson agreed.
“I think we need more definition on what it is we’re talking about. . .I don’t have a clear feeling for what it is,” Benson said. “I know what it does. I don’t know what it is.”
A few tattoo artists at Tuesday night’s Commission meeting expressed different visions for their shops and clientele. Long Beach resident and tattoo artist Wade Hexberg, 36, envisioned a shop reminiscent of a 1940s barber shop in an old brick building. Tiffany Garcia, another independent artist who said she had been in the tattoo business for about 18 years, envisions an art gallery setting if she gets her own shop.
These tattoo artists Tuesday night recognized that their profession had a bad reputation, despite the fact that celebrities and white-collar professionals, in addition to gang members, have been known to “get inked.”
But since a federal judge in the US Court of Appeals said last year that both tattoos and the process of tattooing are protected under the First Amendment after a tattoo studio owner challenged the City of Hermosa Beach, Signal Hill is looking for a way to change the zoning ordinance that previously prohibited the tattoo businesses and determine just how a change to the local ordinance would affect the business community.
But, first, there is a marketing hurdle that tattoo business owners will have to overcome. Jon Hall, one of the tattoo artists who hope to start a studio in town, recognizes that there is a public perception problem.
“There’s a big, huge misunderstanding when it comes to tattooing. And me and my business partner, personally, are not in gangs. We don’t do drugs. We don’t drink,” Hall said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting. “We are just committed to our art.”
During the meeting, the 29-year-old father from Long Beach stood before the Commission to challenge the perception that the shops are responsible for attracting “bad people.” Hall said he is a Christian who regularly attends church. He’s a father and a tattoo artist with a clientele that includes doctors, lawyers and nurses, he said.
“I’ve tattooed bad people too,” said Hall, but he also went on to defend how a studio would be unfairly labeled. “I mean, bad people go to Costco and Home Depot. You know what I mean? If they want to get a tattoo from me, I’ll do it.”
Matthew Simmons, a Signal Hill resident, said he opposes allowing tattoo studios to operate in the city.
“The strip clubs and tattoo parlors are family repellents,” Simmons said, further suggesting that home values would decline. He also asked the City to consider keeping tattoo studios concentrated in a particular industrial zone and compared the potential fight over tattoo studios to a previous fight over strip clubs.
A second workshop will be scheduled for the next Planning Commission in July as City staff will conduct further research on the issue. The next Planning Commission will be Tuesday, July 12 at 7pm in Council Chambers. City Council will meet Tuesday, June 21 at 7pm at the City’s Council Chambers.