Pizza di Joey, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Photo via Institute for Justice.

A judge has given the city two months to stop enforcing its 300-foot barrier ordinance that bars Baltimore food trucks from setting up near similar brick-and-mortar restaurants.

In a 23-page decision handed down in Baltimore City Circuit Court Wednesday, Judge Karen Friedman wrote that two food truck proprietors have provided “voluminous evidence” that the Rawlings-Blake-era barrier law for food trucks lacks clarity and enforceability.

“This Court is not particularly concerned with the number of feet that the ordinance established, but rather with the lack of clarity, and therefore the inevitable lack of consistency in how the chosen amount of feet be measured,” Friedman wrote in her opinion.

She also took issue with the language “same type of food product” – words intended to halt, for example, a pizza truck from competing with a pizza restaurant – because they could be loosely interpreted, including whether it’s a specific dish, category of food or style of the same cuisine.

Local food truck proprietors Joey Vanoni, owner of Pizza di Joey, and Nicole McGowan, the woman behind Madame BBQ, took the city to court after it approved the barrier ordinance in 2014. The law was designed to prevent food trucks from taking business away from brick-and-mortar establishments.

Punishments for violations included a misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine, or revocation of one’s license if they repeatedly broke the law. But the food truck owners, represented by attorneys from the Arlington-based consumer-advocacy legal nonprofit Institute for Justice, argued the ordinance was unconstitutional, saying it amounts to “economic favoritism” that deprives entrepreneurs of due process.

Friedman didn’t quite go that far in her ruling. The judge determined the law isn’t “per se unconstitutional” and that it doesn’t violate food truck owners’ due process rights because the city “is entitled to protect the general welfare by ensuring the vibrancy of commercial districts” – even if the law’s language is vague and therefore tough to enforce.

The Institute for Justice plans to appeal the ruling in an attempt to get a higher court to find such barrier laws unconstitutional.

“Today’s ruling means Charm City is one step closer to food truck freedom,” said senior attorney Robert Frommer in a statement. “But until the Maryland courts declare once and for all that cities cannot make it a crime to compete, we will keep fighting.”

City Solicitor Andre Davis said his office will ask the court reconsider its determination that the law wasn’t clear.

“We will argue that the terms are not fatally vague. We will also consider the possibility of amending the ordinance in a way to cure the issues identified by the court,” he wrote in an email.

The city is also considering whether to appeal the ruling entirely. Davis noted the court would likely hear both sides’ appeals at the same time, if the solicitor’s office does opt to do so.

As for the more immediate outcome, Friedman gave the city two months to stop enforcing the barrier law. Vanoni said in a statement that the ruling is “not just a win for me, but a win for all hungry Baltimoreans who will finally have the freedom to choose where to eat lunch.”

This story has been updated with comment from the Baltimore City Solicitor’s Office.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...