Sidewalk Vending in La Jolla is a Battle for Balance

people walk by and shop from sidewalk vending booths in La Jolla cove

Sidewalk vending in high-traffic, zero-vending zones continues in La Jolla, with vendors citing their right to operate under the First Amendment.

La Jolla’s picturesque coastline, known for its stunning views and natural beauty, has been the backdrop of a heated debate surrounding sidewalk vendors. In 2018, the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, also known as Senate Bill 946, was signed into law by then-Governor Jerry Brown to promote entrepreneurship among California’s low-income residents. 

However, implementing the law has proven to be a complex task for San Diego. Balancing the interests of vendors, local officials, coastal aesthetics, and public safety has led to a contentious battle over regulations, enforcement, First Amendment protections, permit fees, and the cost to taxpayers. 

As the debate unfolds, officials are trying to strike the right balance between economic opportunity, preserving the natural charm of its iconic coastline, and providing clarity about what is and is not allowed.

Sidewalk vending in La Jolla

The City of San Diego implemented an ordinance in June 2022 that imposed restrictions on where vendors could set up in accordance with Senate Bill 946, which partly states:

A local authority may adopt additional requirements regulating the time, place, and manner of sidewalk vending in a park owned or operated by the local authority if the requirements are any of the following:

(i) Directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.

(ii) Necessary to ensure the public’s use and enjoyment of natural resources and recreational opportunities.

(iii) Necessary to prevent an undue concentration of commercial activity that unreasonably interferes with the scenic and natural character of the park.

 

Areas sidewalk vending is prohibited in La Jolla

San Diego’s ordinance prohibits vending year-round at popular locations in La Jolla, such as Scripps Park, the Children’s Pool, the Coast Boulevard boardwalk between Jenner and Cuvier streets, and the boardwalk at La Jolla Shores.

Other high-traffic sidewalk areas in San Diego are restricted to vending outside the Summer moratorium, the Saturday before Memorial Day, and the preceding Saturday and Sunday through Labor Day.

“Maintaining the coastline for scenic and natural beauty is a positive step forward and is a win for everyone.”…“In this urban environment that we all live in, the limited open spaces and beaches and parks need to be preserved for the many recreational opportunities available, people seeking and enjoying nature, and all those that want to connect with the environment.”

–Bob Evans, president of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches board. The La Jolla Light 

 

These restrictions have drawn criticism from sidewalk vending advocates like Councilwoman Vivian Moreno and Erin Tsarumoto Grassi of Alliance San Diego, who argue that the ordinance is excessively punitive and makes it “nearly impossible for sidewalk vendors to operate and support themselves and their families.”

A part of the legislation, however, has received praise is the provision for creating “entrepreneurship zones,” designated areas where vendors would have the opportunity to flourish and potentially receive financial assistance from the city.

The locations for these zones have yet to be determined. 

While the ordinance went into effect immediately after its passing in June 2022, areas within the coastal zone had to wait for the approval of the Coastal Commission to approve the regulations within the ordinance. 

In August of 2023, the Coastal Commission agreed to allow for sidewalk vending to be enforced. For those few months, locals in La Jolla saw increased vendor activity.

However, even with the green light from the Coastal Commission, locals, especially local small businesses, believe that enforcement needs to be more consistent. 

In the La Jolla Light, city officials are cited as saying that “commercial activities that seek donations instead of a set charge are not considered vending,” while language in the ordinance states that vending is “with respect to any goods, to sell, offer to sell, expose or display for sale, solicit offers to purchase, barter, or require someone to negotiate, establish, or pay a fee before providing goods, even if characterized as a donation…”

Enforcement

The enforcement of the sidewalk vending ordinance was initially slated to begin in February 2023 when the law took full effect. Vendors operating illegally may face fines ranging from $200 to $1,000, with the possibility of impounded carts, equipment, and goods. 

According to city estimates, enforcing the ordinance and educating vendors would require an additional 32 jobs in San Diego’s Development Services and Parks & Recreation departments, totaling $5.1 million in costs. 

The law also allows cities and counties to establish regulations within parks to prevent an “undue concentration of commercial activity which would unreasonably interfere with the scenic and natural characteristics of the park.

–NBC San Diego

 

First Amendment Protection Gray Areas

The controversy surrounding sidewalk vending has also highlighted the intersection of First Amendment rights and vending regulations. Some vendors continue to operate in zero-vending zones, citing their activities as expressive speech protected by the First Amendment.

The ordinance exempts individuals engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment, such as artistic performances, free speech, political activities, or selling expressive items like newspapers, leaflets, and bumper stickers.

Issues arise from the broad interpretations of expressive activity, such as painting or handmade goods.

The ambiguity surrounding what is and isn’t protected has slowed enforcement. The Parks & Recreation Department is reviewing the municipal code to clarify what constitutes protected vending activities under the First Amendment, including solicitation, performances, and merchandise sales on public property.

In February 2023, City spokesman Benny Cartwright told the La Jolla Light that “the city is required to allow park space for First Amendment activity, provided it does not block walkways and emergency access.”

Permits and Costs to Taxpayers

Under the current regulations, sidewalk vendors must pay an annual permit fee of $38. This fee is intended to support the hiring of park rangers and maintenance staff necessary for robust enforcement.

Since the ordinance’s implementation, the city has issued hundreds of permits, with 724 permits recorded as of May 2023 alone, and since the ordinance went into effect in June 2022.

According to NBC San Diego, in May 2022, City staff initially recommended a higher permit fee of $230. After some negotiations, however, the fee was decreased to match what it costs to get a business tax certificate in the city. The permit fee was to be revisited in 2023, and when it was, the permit fee of $38 was extended again.

However, the cost of the policy to taxpayers has raised concerns. Each licensed street vendor costs taxpayers $1,800 per year, according to NBC7 San Diego, and this figure may rise to $6,200 in the next fiscal year.

Despite a planned $5.4 million budget allocation for an enforcement team of 32 and up to 44, only two individuals have been hired.

If the team is eventually assembled as it was budgeted, the cost to taxpayers will naturally increase, while the annual street vendor permit fee remains at $38. 

Although its relatively low cost compared to other cities, the fee doesn’t cover the expenses associated with enforcement. The fee would need to be substantially higher per annual vending permit for the City to recover the costs required to enforce vending throughout San Diego. 

Council member Jennifer Campbell, who, like La Jolla’s Joe La Cava, represents beach communities, tells the San Diego Union-Tribune that “vendor permits would be about $4,000 each if the city tried to recover the costs of planned enforcement, which is the city’s usual approach when setting fees.”

The minimal effort the city expended over the past year is a testament to vendor compliance with the ordinance. Although enforcement has made a remarkable difference, there remains a cause for concern. We must not overlook the concerns expressed by visitors to our beaches and shoreline parks. I look forward to keeping the license fees modest while ensuring the city enforces the laws on the books and keeps our public spaces enjoyable by all.

—Joe La Cava, District 1 Council member for La Jolla

 

The Future of Sidewalk Vending in La Jolla

As the debate continues, efforts to balance encouraging entrepreneurship, preserving the coast, and addressing public health, safety, and welfare concerns remain challenging for San Diego and La Jolla. The ambiguity over what vending is or is not considered protected under the First Amendment is a concern the City of San Diego hears and is looking to clarify.

Read the complete ordinance here.

Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.
Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.

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