Food trucks finally get relaxed regulations

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

With changes having been made at their request in October, the Sarasota County commissioners on Nov. 8 unanimously approved a revised food truck ordinance that will eliminate restrictions between the mobile units and between the trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice, told the board that the previous regulations “were, without a doubt, some of the worst in the entire nation.”

Food truck operators will be able to get an annual permit from the county and then work with private property owners to serve people in a number of the county’s zoning districts. As county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson explained on Nov. 8, the addition of the Office, Professional and Institutional (OPI) district was among the latest changes to the ordinance.

Any request to operate a food truck on one of the barrier islands or on public right of way, Thompson pointed out, still will necessitate a public hearing before the County Commission.

In the revised ordinance, the hours of operation will be limited to the period between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., unless the trucks are on the site of a business or institution that is not a street vendor and that has a later closing time. At the specific request of commissioners on Oct. 10, the new ordinance will require a separation of 150 feet between residential structures and a food truck, “unless an intervening nonresidential building screens the vendor from view,” according to a memo Thompson provided the board in advance of the meeting.

One other new provision calls for the limitation of no more than two vendors on any parcel unless they are part of a special event for which the county’s zoning administrator has issued a temporary use permit (TUP). “We think that you will find that, in practice, this will prove to be unnecessary,” Walsh said of the latter restriction.

And while the county’s Planning Commission had recommended that a vendor be required to show proof of liability insurance before the county would issue the business a permit, Thompson’s memo said that, after conferring with the Institute for Justice, that requirement will be applied only to food truck businesses wishing to operate on public property.

Walsh noted that the county’s food truck businesses were willing to accede to the barrier island restriction, but she added that the Institute for Justice opposes regulations that necessitate permitting on a location-by-location basis on public property. While the revised ordinance “does fall short of ideal,” Walsh said, “we are here to get this done.”

A day after the vote, Chris Jett, founder of the SRQ Food Truck Alliance, told SNL, “It is an incredible first step.”

Once the new guidelines have been in effect for a while, Walsh told the commissioners she hoped the board would loosen more of the restrictions. Jett voiced the same hope during his public remarks.

Walsh especially lauded the elimination from the ordinance of the regulation that no food truck could operate within 800 feet of an established restaurant, without notarized written consent from the restaurant owner or operator. “This is protectionist, unconstitutional and an illegitimate use of government power,” Walsh told the board. “We are delighted to see it go,” she added, along with the 750-foot separation that had been required between food trucks.

Jett said what the food truck operators are seeking “is availability to move if a spot doesn’t work.” Jett also told the commissioners he had gathered close to 3,000 signatures over the previous weekend from people supporting the board’s approval of letting the food trucks roam freely.

He further reminded the board that the cooking is contained inside the vehicles. Referencing slides Thompson showed the board earlier, Jett added that Alday’s BBQ is “a perfect example of what we are.”

Alday’s operates on the site of the Marathon service station at the northeast intersection of Bahia Vista Street and Beneva Road, in Pinecraft. “They have never had a complaint,” Jett said.

In the Nov. 9 telephone interview, Jett said of the board members, “They are going to see how well we do,” working under the new guidelines.

“There are lots of food trucks out there that are operating illegally,” he pointed out. They know who they are.” If they stay in line, he continued, that will give the SRQ Food Truck Alliance a much better opportunity to seek relaxation of some of the ordinance’s provisions in the future. “We’ll work with ’em,” he added. “I can show them how to [operate] properly."

Jett extended his appreciation, especially, to Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo, Chair Alan Maio and Commissioner Christine Robinson, as well as to Thompson. He noted that Thompson had been willing to listen to the Alliance’s concerns all through the two-year-long process that led to the Nov. 8 vote.

More pleas

Two other county residents joined Jett and Walsh in urging the board to approve the changes this week.

David Lough of Longboat Key identified himself as a former San Diego resident who appreciates young people’s passion for food trucks. He added that he believes the businesses “add to the vibrancy of a city.” The final speaker during the public hearing, Chris Matthews, told the board he and his wife operate a food truck. “We work 60 hours a week just to scrape by. … We spend much of our time operating outside of the county.”

Board comments

“It might not be exactly what everybody wants,” Vice Chair Caragiulo said of the revised ordinance, “but … it is a substantial improvement to the regulatory environment we have with food trucks.” Commissioner Robinson pointed out that the board was not trying to protect people from professionals in the business, but from “the new guy.” Referring to the public comments, she added, “Maybe we’ll learn that there are some things [in the ordinance] that we can do away with.”

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