Food truck operators finally win relaxed regulations in the county

County to maintain 150-foot separation between a vendor and a residence, and the businesses will be restricted to private property in certain zoning districts

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Nov. 12 to correct the operating hours allowed for food trucks.

Baja Boys is a popular food truck in Sarasota County. Image from the business website
Baja Boys is a popular food truck in Sarasota County. Image from the business website

With changes having been made at their request in October, the Sarasota County commissioners this week 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 on Nov. 8 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.

Furthermore, 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.

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.

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.”

Chris Jett. News File photo
Chris Jett. News File photo

A day after the vote, Chris Jett, founder of the SRQ Food Truck Alliance, told The Sarasota News Leader, “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.”

As he had explained to the News Leader last month, he pointed out to the commission this week that he had visited the site where a food truck had proposed to operate in Englewood, in plain view of a residence. Three other food truck operators also had taken a look at that location, he said, and they agreed with him that it would not be a good spot.

That application — which the board turned down — prompted the discussion about requiring extra separation between food trucks and residences.

Jett also told the commissioners he had gathered close to 3,000 signatures over the 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.

A food truck offers a variety of dining options. Image from the SRQ Food Truck Alliance website
A food truck offers a variety of dining options. Image from the SRQ Food Truck Alliance website

In the Nov. 9 telephone interview with the News Leader, 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.

And even though Caragiulo — with his family — is an owner of multiple restaurants in the community, Jett noted, “[Caragiulo] has always been a food truck fan.”

More pleas

A graphic shows the separation of Alday's BBQ from residences in Pinecraft. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows the separation of Alday’s BBQ from residences in Pinecraft. Image courtesy Sarasota County

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.”

When his son visits him, Lowe continued, his son tells him Sarasota is boring. “We live in an Uber world,” he said. Communities such as Charlotte and Atlanta — which, he had read, are being targeted by Sarasota County’s tourism marketing — have “vibrant food truck cultures.” Because Sarasota County wants a younger demographic, Lough continued, it also should embrace food trucks.

The final speaker during the public hearing, Chris Matthews, told the board he and his wife operate a food truck. Having served in local government himself in Cleveland, he said, “I understand the tremendous challenge the board is facing on a daily basis to try to please everybody.”

However, he continued, he and his wife “work 60 hours a day just to scrape by. … We spend much of our time operating outside of the county.”

He also urged the commission to revisit the latest change calling for temporary use permits if more than two food trucks plan to operate on private property, along with the call for a minimum separation of 150 feet from residences.

Board comments

A graphic shows how a potential location of a food truck at the intersection of 17th Street and Honore Avenue would violate the ordinance. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows how the potential location of a food truck (represented by the yellow star) on property at the intersection of 17th Street and Honore Avenue would violate the ordinance because of its proximity to homes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“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 added that after meeting with representatives of food truck operations, and Thompson’s latest amendments, “I have a higher level of comfort than I did the last time we met on this issue.”

She 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.”

Chair Maio talked of having met with Jett. “Some of my fears were removed.” He told the food truck operators, “I hope you all prosper.”

Alluding to Walsh’s earlier statement, Maio added that he hoped that in the future, if food trucks were a topic of discussion before the commission, no one would be telling the board that the county had the worst ordinance in the United States.

Then, to Lough, Maio said, “We’re doing our best to be less boring, buddy.”