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New fire code impacts local food trucks

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Under local enforcement of a new provision of the Ohio fire code, a longtime local food truck vendor could lose his patch of pavement — and may have to relocate out of Yellow Springs.

Akhilesh Nigam, owner of food truck Aahar India, said this week that he is running afoul of a new fire rule requiring that mobile food units park at least 10 feet away from flammable structures. He leases space in the Corner Cone parking lot from owner Lawren Williams, and his food truck is adjacent to the Corner Cone building, a pergola and a fence.

“I’m in a box,” Nigam said.

Re-siting his trailer within the lot is difficult, largely because he needs access to electricity, and finding other locations in a space-constrained village is likewise a challenge.

“I want to stay, but where can I go?” he said of relocating locally.

Local fire department Miami Township Fire-Rescue, or MTFR, which conducts fire inspections in Yellow Springs, has given him until Jan. 2, 2020, to address the issue after a recent inspection, according to Nigam. As of this week, he has identified two locations in other communities that could accommodate his food truck. But he would prefer to remain in Yellow Springs, he said.

Nigam, who lives in Beavercreek, has operated Aahar India as a take-out business for nine years from the Corner Cone parking lot. His previous food trailer burned in a grease fire at that spot in January of 2019. But while that event might add poignancy to his current dilemma, enforcement of the new rule is not related to the earlier fire, according to MTFR Assistant Fire Chief Denny Powell.

“This rule applies to everyone,” he said.

Powell also noted that the 2019 fire could have easily spread, had it not been for the rapid response of MTFR firefighters.

“I was utterly shocked that [the blaze] didn’t catch the Corner Cone on fire,” Powell said.

The 10-foot separation rule is part of a new portion of the Ohio fire code regulating food trucks, referred to as mobile food units in the code. The food truck provisions were introduced into the state fire code in 2017, and went into effect on Jan. 5, 2019 (coincidentally, the same day of Aahar India’s fire).

The separation rule specifically requires that food trucks “shall be separated from the entrances and other exits of buildings or structures and combustible materials by a clear space distance of 10 feet.”

Powell acknowledged that the new provisions are extensive — section 320 of the Ohio fire code pertaining to mobile food units runs to five pages when printed — and said the scope of the new rules caught many fire departments in the state by surprise.

“It caught a lot of people by surprise when it was written and adopted,” Powell said.

Implementation is still in its infancy, he added.

In the case of MTFR, the local fire department has taken a “wait and see approach” to the code changes, relying on the state for guidance, according to Powell.

“As an agency, we’ve never taken a heavy-handed approach,” he said.

But he also added that this specific code violation is straightforward.

“There’s no leeway or gray area,” he said.

Asked why the 10-foot separation rule wasn’t noted after the department responded to Aahar India’s fire last January, Powell said that enforcement isn’t necessarily part of a service call, and re-emphasized that the local fire department wasn’t enforcing the rule aggressively.

“We don’t have an obligation to communicate violations, and we may not know all the codes at the time,” he said.

Violation of the 10-foot separation rule and other fire code issues came to light last month, when MTFR inspected both Aahar India and Miguel’s Tacos, the Mexican food truck business owned and operated by local resident Miguel Espinosa. Both businesses were found to be in violation of several provisions of the new code, according to Powell, who added that he could not speak about the inspections in detail, as he was not the inspecting officer in either case.

Aahar India was inspected by Captain Nathaniel Ayres, and Miguel’s Tacos was inspected by Chief Colin Altman, he confirmed.

Altman was out of town and unavailable for comment. Ayres, reached by phone last week, said the inspection of Aahar India was undertaken because potential fire code violations were “brought to our attention.”

Powell confirmed that complaints can trigger an inspection. MTFR also conducts annual or near-annual inspections of the hundreds of commercial, academic and local government buildings under its jurisdiction in Yellow Springs, Miami Township and parts of Bath Township.

Powell added that contrary to some comments he’s heard locally, MTFR is not targeting Aahar India and Miguel’s Tacos, the village’s two stationary food trucks.

“We’re not singling these out,” he said.

The new provisions of the fire code apply equally to all food trucks that operate in the village, he stated. These include the food trucks that set up regularly in front of Yellow Springs Brewery and at Nipper’s Corner, as well as food trucks that operate in the village during fall and summer Street Fair.

Street Fair food trucks were subject to the new fire rules this October, according to Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karen Wintrow this week.

“We started to make adjustments in June, and the new rules were strictly enforced in October,” she said.

Other food trucks that operate more regularly in the village have not yet been inspected under the new code, but they soon will be, according to Powell.

“It’s coming,” he said.

Regarding the inspection process, he said MTFR inspectors typically notify business owners up to two months in advance about upcoming inspections, and ask that they be present so that potential violations can be explained.

“It’s more of an educational thing,” he said of the inspection process.

Violations are noted in a report, and discussed with the owner at the time of inspection. Unless the violation is “a life safety hazard,” in which case a business could be shut down, the local inspector sets a date for re-inspection, at the inspector’s discretion and typically within 60 days, Powell said.

At the time of re-inspection, business owners need to show that violations have been fixed or are in the process of being addressed. Inspectors will return in another 30 days to assess the outstanding issues, according to Powell.

“We work with the owner to bring them into compliance,” he said.

But Ayres, who inspected Aahar India, described a more cut-and-dried process last week. Asked what options an owner has in responding to violations, Ayres replied, “Said owner has to fix it.”

According to Powell, only rarely does the department have to escalate enforcement to the next step, which is a state citation.

“If we get to the point we have to issue a citation, we’ve failed,” he said.

Describing his recent inspection, Nigam said fire inspectors showed up on Nov. 18 at his business without prior notice. While past MTFR inspections had been “quick,” this one was “full-fledged,” with many more items checked than previously, according to Nigam.

He received a letter by email later that day noting numerous items that needed to be brought in compliance, per the new code. The letter indicated that he would be re-inspected on Dec. 21, about a month later.

“This is good, they are doing their job,” Nigam said, clarifying that he had no problems with the process and did not question the results.

He added that he was unaware of the new fire rules until the day of the inspection.

In a subsequent communication, Nigam asked MTFR for an extension on the re-inspection, and was granted one, with a new date of Jan. 2, 2020.

While Nigam said he has been working to address all the other issues identified in the inspection report, he has so far been unable to come up with a solution to the 10-foot separation requirement.

He and his landlord, Lawren Williams, recently met with an electrician regarding options to run electricity to different parts of the Corner Cone parking lot. Williams has been supportive of finding ways to keep Aahar India on site, Nigam said.

Reached for comment this week, Williams affirmed that he is committed to “helping Akhilesh within the policies and procedures of the Village.”

Nigam has also been in touch with the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Village of Yellow Springs regarding alternative spots for him within village limits.

By Village zoning code, food trucks can be located in areas zoned for business, educational and industrial use, but cannot be sited in residential or conservation areas, or in municipal parking lots, according to Zoning Administrator Denise Swinger this week.

She said Nigam recently had approached her for ideas about alternative locations, and she had provided a few possibilities — but only a few.

“Looking at the possibilities, there just aren’t many,” she said.

Wintrow at the Chamber of Commerce said she, too, recently had provided Nigam with local contacts who might be able to help. But suitable parking space is scarce in the village, she emphasized.

“I support him staying [in Yellow Springs], but it’s an uphill battle to find space,” she said.

Wintrow said she also had spoken with Espinosa and Altman about the impact of the 10-foot separation rule on Miguel’s Tacos, and learned that he would be able to make the necessary adjustment at his existing spot.

Espinosa could not be reached for comment by the News.

Nigam this week said he is still hopeful that some solution can be found to allow him to stay in Yellow Springs. He is grateful to villagers for stepping up to help him after last January’s fire; donations from customers, many of them local, helped him purchase a new trailer after his previous one burned. And he believes that Yellow Springs benefits from having an establishment like his in town.

“Yellow Springs needs Indian food,” he said.


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