Food truck vendor’s application leads to broader discussion of planned new Sarasota County ordinance

County commissioners voice concerns about giving surrounding property owners sufficient notice of applicants’ requests for Temporary Use Permits

Sarasota County Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. file photo
Sarasota County Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. file photo

A question about how to proceed on a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) request from a person seeking to set up a food truck at a Bee Ridge Road service station recently led to broader County Commission debate about handling such agenda items until the county has a new food truck ordinance in place.

As for the latter point: Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson told the board members during their Dec. 9 regular meeting that she hopes to have a draft of the ordinance ready for their review in February 2016.

Until new regulations are in place, a deputy county attorney suggested, the commissioners can handle any food vendor requests that come to them on a case-by-case basis, including any direction about notices being provided to surrounding property owners.

On Dec. 9, Thompson explained the background of the latest application under consideration, as outlined in a memo: Charlie Chi of Sarasota was seeking county approval of a Street Vendor TUP so he could sell Korean barbecue from a food truck on privately owned property located at 2791 Bee Ridge Road. That is the site of a Marathon service station; it is at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and Swift Road, Thompson told the board.

The truck would operate from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Thompson added. The owner of the parcel had provided a consent form, according to a document included in the board’s meeting packet.

Under the current County Code, Thompson continued, the zoning office is required to ask if the County Commission wants to hold a public hearing on such a request. If the board takes no action, then the zoning administrator is authorized to make the final decision regarding the TUP, her memo noted.

After Thompson completed a presentation that lasted about 5 minutes, Commissioner Christine Robinson posed a question: If the board chose to hold a public hearing on the request, would signs be posted and neighbors of the property be alerted by mail about the upcoming hearing, or would a notice of the hearing simply be advertised in the newspaper?

The code requires only the newspaper advertisement, Thompson responded. However, staff could notify the property owners in close proximity to the site, using the same distance standard for mailings involving rezoning requests, Thompson added. “We could post signs also.”

“The people just need to be notified,” Vice Chair Al Maio told Thompson. “I’m almost going to vote every time for a public hearing,” he continued, noting, though, “I get a bit nervous that that’s a bit unnecessary.”

When Maio asked what types of commercial properties surround the Bee Ridge Road location, Thompson responded that they are all of an industrial nature. “I didn’t notice any restaurants” in a review of the area via Google Maps, she added.

County Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson has issued a Temporary Use Permit to allow a food truck to operate on the site of a Bee Ridge Road service station. Image courtesy Sarasota County
County Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson has issued a Temporary Use Permit to allow a food truck to operate on the site of a Bee Ridge Road service station. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The code does call for written approval from any restaurant owner within a certain distance of the proposed site of a food vendor seeking a TUP, she pointed out.

“I apologize,” Maio told her. “I didn’t realize that.”

Then Commissioner Paul Caragiulo noted, “Those provisions are being challenged all over the country and being overturned.” In fact, he said, he believed the county’s new food truck ordinance would remove the stipulation giving restaurant owners a say in the TUP application process.

“That is correct,” Thompson told him.

“My sense of feeling better just evaporated,” Maio added.

Robinson sought clarification of the situation with the current request: The board could authorize a public hearing or let Thompson make the decision?

“I can approve it administratively,” Thompson said.

When Commissioner Charles Hines asked whether the TUP would be for one year, Thompson told him it would.

The board used to have these debates over such requests, Hines pointed out. “The compromise was let [Thompson] do her work.” Moreover, Hines said, if people complain after a TUP has been issued, “we don’t have to renew it.”

“So what would you all like to do here?” Chair Carolyn Mason asked.

No motion followed, leaving the decision on the TUP to Thompson’s discretion.

In response to a Dec. 14 inquiry from The Sarasota News Leader, Thompson wrote in an email that she did issue a Street Vendor TUP to Chi.

The new food truck ordinance

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

After the discussion of the Chi application, Robinson asked when Thompson expected to have a draft of the revised food truck ordinance ready for board review. Thompson replied, “I was hoping to get it back to you in February.” However, in the aftermath of the earlier discussion, Thompson said, “I’m sensing some concern,” especially in regard to whether she should proceed — as planned after the Oct. 27 board discussion — with inclusion of a section giving the zoning administrator authority to approve food truck vendor applications.

Robinson pointed out that the commission had not had a thorough discussion on many of points relative to the proposed ordinance. She then asked whether the board should amend the current code to make it mandatory that notice be given to surrounding property owners when a vendor applies for a TUP, adding, “I don’t want to double [staff’s] work.”

If Thompson brings the board a draft of the new ordinance in February, Maio noted, “we’re still free to change things and amend it at that time.”

Thompson said the direction the board gave her in October was to work with the street vendors on the measures they desire in the code, as well as with representatives of the hospitality industry. The latter had proven “to be somewhat difficult,” Thompson added, “as I can’t seem to find someone who heads up that organization. But I am writing,” she continued, “and I am working with Jeff Maultsby’s group to get [a draft] out to the Chambers [of Commerce in the county].”

(Maultsby is the director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development.)

She continued, “The difficulty that I’m having is, right now, the food vendors would really like to be able to be granted a permit that’s good for a year and not be tied to a specific location. And I have a little bit of an issue over that, and I’m sure you may, also.”

Thompson added that she has been researching food truck ordinances across the nation, because she has not found any in Florida that seem applicable to Sarasota County.

For example, she pointed out, the City of Sarasota is the equivalent of a downtown “doughnut hole” in the county, and the city has its own rules. “So I’m trying to come up with some kind of regulations that would be acceptable to the food truck industry, and they are working with me and providing various codes.”

Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy. Rachel Hackney photo
Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy. Rachel Hackney photo

At that point, Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy reminded the board members of Maio’s earlier comment — that they could make changes to the proposed ordinance when they hold the public hearing on it, or they can continue the public hearing if they feel the proposal needs significant further work.

“Is there any reason to not continue on the path that we were on and [have] Ms. Thompson bring it back to us in February,” Maio asked, “so we could discuss these very things then and give her additional direction?”
Until a new ordinance is in place, Roddy responded, the board can make specific recommendations about notices to surrounding property owners. “I think, for the few applications that may come [up] in the next few months,” Roddy continued, the commissioners can handle each one according to its specific circumstances.

Roddy then reminded the board members that they need to keep in mind the matter of payment for notices that are sent to property owners regarding TUP applications, because such mailings are not required under the current code. If the board members choose to require notices other than newspaper advertisements, he continued, and they want the applicants to pay for that process, then they probably would want to amend the current code.

Until the new ordinance is on the books, Robinson suggested a compromise: ask County Administrator Tom Harmer to direct staff members to remind the board that if it asks for a public hearing on a TUP, the board has to decide whether it wants notices other than the required newspaper advertisement. “I think we could [provide that direction] by consensus,” she added.

Seeing no dissent, Mason said that was the consensus of the commission.

Maio asked Thompson again about the timeline for work on the new ordinance.

“I am certainly going to try to be back before you in February with this,” she replied.

Planning and Development Services Director Tom Polk. File photo
Planning and Development Services Director Tom Polk. File photo

At that point, Tom Polk, director of the Planning and Development Services Department, asked the commissioners whether staff should bring back two proposed versions of the new ordinance: one with the provision for administrative approval for food truck TUPs and one with additional requirements regarding notification of surrounding property owners in preparation for public hearings.

Polk also told the board that, in accord with county practices, the applicant seeking the TUP would bear the cost associated with a broader noticing system. He would like to bring back both options, he added.

“I was very comfortable” with the specific site requirements Thompson discussed in October, Maio replied, especially in regard to buffers, landscaping and prohibiting food trucks from parking in spaces necessary for the site to be code-compliant.

“Those elements are still part of that conversation,” Polk told him.

Code requirements are already in place until the board approves a new ordinance, Caragiulo pointed out. “You’re following that process?”

“Yes,” Polk replied.

His recommendation, based on the discussion, Harmer said, is for staff to continue to work on the proposed new ordinance, with the provision that administrative approval be the means of granting TUPS to the food truck vendors. However, more focus can be put on addressing concerns the commissioners raised regarding notice, he noted. During the public hearing on the document, Harmer said, the board can review all those elements, and it can ask for more changes in the document, if necessary.

“OK,” Chair Mason replied.