THE PLIGHT of the Green Castle cart pod on NE 20th and Everett makes one thing clear: Food carts aren't exempt from local permitting and zoning laws just because they're beloved in Portland. The pod is planning to reopen after raising the ire of city code inspectors last year.
Landlord Joe Westerman opened the Green Castle pod in April 2011—but unbeknownst to the cart owners who moved in, the lot had no city permits for its electrical and plumbing systems and was zoned residential, which arguably does not allow food carts. The city began investigating the issues in April and cited Westerman, who appealed.
Westerman says he thought he didn't need the usual permits, since the carts are technically temporary, mobile installations. And while the site is zoned residential, the gravel lot had only ever been home to commercial uses (and, more often than not, illegally dumped trash).
"It was an oversight. But if the city looked at most any of these pods, they would probably find that the same issue exists," says Westerman.
Over the next six months, Westerman says he spent about $25,000 on legal fees fighting the city. The Kerns neighborhood came out in strong support of the carts, writing letters noting that the gaggle of small businesses was a welcome change for a vacant lot that had been an eyesore and a dumping ground for years.
However, an October 21 city land-use review decided the site was illegal and Westerman was subject to a $2,500 monthly fine if the pod continued operating. The pod emptied out, but then Westerman won a last-chance appeal on December 22, 2011. The pod can legally reopen—as soon as it gets the permits missing the first time around.
The cart owners weren't aware of any zoning or permit problems until the fall. After the October decision, Westerman gave the carts just a week's notice that the pod was closing and the carts would have to move.
"That was very difficult for all of us," says Bonnie Hamilton, whose cart GF Chef lost four weeks of business because of the shutdown, but is now out on 82nd Avenue. "The whole situation didn't have to happen the way it did. Joe should have been more honest with all of us."
"A landlord doesn't want to create a panic and have everyone bail," says Megan Walhood, whose Viking Soul Food cart now dishes up lefse at SE 42nd and Belmont. "But I think he does have a bit of a black eye he should be aware of."
Westerman says it was a "hard decision" to close the pod on such short notice, but that he thought it was the right thing to do. "It just made sense to cut it clean rather than having the pod die real slow," he says, adding that he hopes the pod will be up and running again by early spring. "It will be good to know that we're legal, more legal than most of these places."