Chris Jett says he plans to fill the County Commission chambers for the next public hearing
Two days before the Sarasota County Commission once again will consider a revised food truck ordinance, the founder of the SRQ Food Truck Alliance plans a big rally to fire up supporters, he told The Sarasota News Leader.
“I’m going to pack that place,” Chris Jett said of the Commission Chambers at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice. That is where the board will hold its next public hearing, on Nov. 8, on new measures designed to eliminate facets of the current law that have been challenged on a constitutional basis and incorporate steps to make it easier for the vendors to operate.
The hearing is set for the morning session of the meeting, Assistant County Administrator Steve Botelho said on Oct. 10.
In the meantime, Jett pointed out during an Oct. 12 telephone interview, people may sign a petition online at srqfoodtruckalliance.com to show their support of changes in the county ordinance that will enable food truck owners to operate safely and legally in the county. They also are welcome to come to the Phillippi Farmhouse Market in Sarasota between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Wednesdays or the Englewood Farmers Market on Dearborn Street, which is held Thursdays between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and sign the petition at the Baja Boys food truck operated by his wife, Michelle.
The Nov. 6 rally will be held at 5600 Deer Drive in Sarasota, Jett added. It will begin at noon and continue until about 7 p.m. He organized a similar rally in April to garner support before the county Planning Commission held a public hearing on the revised food truck ordinance in May. Approximately 4,500 people showed up then, Jett pointed out. “We had plenty of momentum going into that [May 5 hearing].”
Referring to the commissioners on Nov. 8, Jett said, “They have no idea what they’re in for.”
Jett was the lone speaker during the County Commission’s Oct. 10 public hearing on the latest version of the ordinance, which was crafted on the basis of Planning Commission members’ suggestions on Aug. 18 that won unanimous approval of that board. Given the support at that Planning Commission session, Jett told the News Leader, he “went in there [on Oct. 10] expecting [the proposed changes] to go through without a problem.”
However, members of the County Commission cited concerns about potential disruptions to neighborhoods, debating the need for a greater separation than 50 feet between a food truck and a residential property line, for example, and the potential for customer traffic to circulate in neighborhoods.
Commissioner Christine Robinson specifically noted a recent split board decision to deny a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) sought by a man who wanted to operate a food truck in Englewood that would have been visible across the street from a residence.
Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson had recommended approval of the application.
When Jett told the board members he had no knowledge of that situation, Commissioner Charles Hines said, “I think it would benefit you a lot to review that property and the public hearing that we had on that [TUP request].” Hines added, “This would have been a disaster in this residential neighborhood.”
Jett told the News Leader he was able to obtain materials about that request, and he took time on Oct. 12 to drive to Englewood to survey the situation. It turned out that the applicant did not have any experience with a food truck business, Jett pointed out, and the man did not even own a food truck.
The ingress and egress for customers at the proposed site would not have worked, Jett added, noting that the man would have realized within a couple of days that the idea was a bad one.
“Basically,” Jett told the News Leader, that man “threw a wrench in this whole thing I’ve been working on for five years.”
However, the fact that the location would not have been a good one for a food truck at least illustrated one point he has been making consistently, Jett said: Food trucks need to be able to roam throughout the county without having to adhere to site plans. What the Alliance has sought, he explained to the Planning Commission and to the County Commission, is a decal that would show a food truck has the necessary county permit and business license to operate. Then the owner could work with private property owners in designated zoning districts to set up where they choose.
Nonetheless, the latest version of the ordinance that Thompson showed the County Commission this week provided only for a permit that would be valid for a year.
“I got frustrated,” Jett said of the County Commission discussion this week. “I got real frustrated.”
He told the News Leader what he had told the Planning Commission and County Commission members: Five food truck operators have had to close since May. That is all the more reason he is anxious to get the law revised.
During his public comments on Oct. 10, Jett said, “Sarasota County should embrace its food truck industry,” because those business owners create jobs — especially entry-level opportunities — and contribute to the county’s economy.
Prior to the Nov. 8 hearing, Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Evans told the board on Oct. 10, staff will analyze how other county and municipal governments handle the issue of separation between food truck operators and residential areas. Nonetheless, Evans explained, he thus far has been unable to find such a measure in other laws he has researched.
He will contact communities “that have struggled” with food truck ordinances, he said, and compile a spreadsheet so the commissioners can see how facets of those communities’ laws compare to what the County Commission was considering this week.
As Robinson put it, the board members agreed with about 95% of the changes the Planning Commission and Thompson had proposed. The residential separation issue is the primary concern, she pointed out.
Hines voiced frustration with the fact that the Planning Commission members tweaked the law considerably after the County Commission last saw a version of it, in October 2015. “This was almost a total flip-flop from what we had. … That’s why this thing is so hard today.”
Other facets of the proposed ordinance
During her presentation, Thompson pointed out that the revised ordinance eliminates the previously required 800-foot separation of a food truck vendor from an established restaurant — unless the owner or operator of the restaurant had given notarized written consent — and the 750-foot separation between vendors themselves.
It would still require a public hearing for any food truck application for operation on a public right of way or on the barrier islands.
However, the latest proposed version of the law calls for no vendor to be closer than 50 feet to “any abutting residential districts.”
In their questioning of Jett, board members asked whether he felt a greater distance would be acceptable. He said he would not be opposed to 75 feet. Nonetheless, he told the board, “I would say we would have to be up to our own policing.”
Jett also pointed out that food preparation is contained within a food truck. “We’re not open-air cooking.”
When Hines asked about the hours of operation, Thompson told him the ordinance does not provide for any.
“They could operate 24 hours a day?” Hines asked.
“Essentially, if they chose to operate 24 hours a day,” she told him.
However, Jett explained during his public remarks that because of the size constraint of the vehicles, the typical maximum period of operation is three hours.
When Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo asked Thompson whether she had undertaken any analysis to determine how many potential sites food trucks could operate on near residential housing, she said she had not. Nonetheless, she added, “I would say 80% of all those properties would be in close proximity to residential.” Still, she noted, the vendors have indicated they want to be “good stewards.”
When Chair Al Maio asked why the Office, Professional and Institutional (OPI) zoning district was not included among those where the food trucks could operate, Thompson replied that she could add it.
Jett told the board he would appreciate that change. “That’s one of the zones that we really, really wanted.”
“What a perfect place for food trucks [by] a building chock full of people, [most of whom eat lunch] and many of whom only get half an hour,” Maio told Thompson.
As commissioners continued to question the separation issue between vendors and homes, Jett pointed out that the ordinance as revised is almost exactly like those in Hillsborough, Manatee and Miami-Dade counties. “We just don’t want any more trucks going out of business,” he pleaded with the board.