Revised food truck ordinance to go before County Commission on Oct. 10

Requirements for site-specific operations to be replaced by zoning administrator’s approval of one-year decals that would allow businesses to operate on private property

The owner of DaVinci's Coffee & Gelato was among the speakers during the Aug. 18 public hearing. Image from the business' website
The owner of DaVinci’s Coffee & Gelato was among the speakers during the Aug. 18 public hearing. Image from the business’ website

The version of the revised Sarasota County food truck ordinance the County Commission is expected to address on Oct. 10 will have significant changes from the last draft that board saw — in October 2015 — thanks to a unanimous Planning Commission vote on Aug. 18.

Having heard that several truck businesses have failed since they last took up the matter in May, the planning commissioners unanimously agreed to strip from the law a provision requiring a property owner to apply for a permit for vendors to operate on a specific site. Instead, each food truck vendor would have to show that it has been licensed by the state and has liability insurance, and then it would pay an annual fee for a decal that would enable it to operate on private property anywhere within Sarasota County. The ordinance also would make it clear that no vendor could block ingress/egress at a business or impede traffic flow. Further, a vehicle would be able to remain on-site overnight, the commissioners decided.

Referring to the proposal for a site plan, Allison Daniel, an attorney for the Institute for Justice in Miami, pointed out to the board, “Such a slow, costly and unwieldy approach would create undue burden on a private property owner and eliminate one of the chief advantages of being a food truck — its nimbleness.”

And while Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy advised them that it would take time to complete this request, the commissioners did call for preparation of a map showing clearly the county zoning districts where the vehicles could operate. Such a map is provided to food truck owners in Manatee County, speakers told the board during its Aug. 18 public hearing.

It took almost two hours during that Planning Commission session for the nine members present to hear from food truck owners during a public hearing and then debate the changes with Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson and Roddy.

“I’m kind of feeling that we have let these people down here,” Commissioner Mark Hawkins said of the vendors. When the board held its previous hearing on a proposed ordinance — on May 5 — he added, “[owners] begged us to do something.”
Hawkins continued, “Permitting is permitting. … They just want to make a living with their food trucks. … I just don’t see why we can’t make it simple.”

Planning Commissioner Robert Morris. News Leader photo
Planning Commissioner Robert Morris. News Leader photo

“I’m feeling the same way,” Commissioner Robert Morris said. “I think that you’ve got a very business-friendly Planning Commission here. … It pains me [that five food truck operations went out of business since May. … I think that the feeling here is that we do want to have a food truck business in Sarasota County.”

The board members did agree to maintain provisions in the revised ordinance calling for the County Commission to hold a public hearing on any proposal for a food truck operation on the barrier islands or on public property. Nonetheless, Chris Jett — whose wife, Michelle, owns the Baja Boys business — told the board that food truck vendors in Sarasota County have no interest in operating on the barrier islands because of the difficulty of dealing with parking restrictions.

Thompson had pointed out that no food truck operation would be able to take up any of the parking spaces the Zoning Code requires a business to have for its customers.

The background

As Thompson explained during her Aug. 18 presentation, county staff has been working with the SRQ Food Truck Alliance — represented by the Institute for Justice — since 2011 to modify the county’s ordinance governing Temporary Use Permits (TUPs) for pushcarts and food trucks.

She added that the draft version she and other staff members had prepared would eliminate distance stipulations to separate food truck vendors from each other and from restaurants. Such provisions have been challenged in court, she noted.

Furthermore, staff has added a number of other zoning districts in which vendors could operate.

The draft also called for a private property owner to apply for a Temporary Use Permit for multiple vendors, she said. The Institute for Justice opposes that measure, Thompson added. Instead, it sought a provision for administrative approval of a food truck business as long as proof of licensing and general liability insurance was demonstrated to the county.

Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. News Leader photo
Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson. News Leader photo

Referring to the type of site plan draft called for, Thompson explained, “It is not something that has to be engineered by anyone.” An aerial view of a parcel from Google Maps showing the planned location of the food truck and “ample circulation” ability for traffic around the truck is all that is necessary, she said.

Staff also felt it is best for the county to be able to limit the number of food trucks on a site, she added, to ensure no traffic problems would arise.

When Commissioner Andrew Stultz asked how the proposed draft compared with regulations in other communities, Thompson told him the Cities of Sarasota and Venice require applications for food vendor permits to include a specific site of operation. However, Manatee County has no requirement other than “you can only operate on commercially zoned properties.” Further, she said, the Manatee ordinance calls for a contract to be negotiated between a property owner and a vendor.

Staff also supported the elimination of a public hearing to consider a private property owner’s request for a permit for a food truck operation on a barrier island, Thompson said, but it recommended retaining the provision for site-specific documentation, to ensure compatibility with other businesses and with TUP criteria.

Commissioner Kevin Cooper pointed out that in May, business owners on Sarasota County’s barrier islands were assured that this “type of activity would continue to be regulated [on the islands], as it always has been.” Have stakeholders on the barrier islands been notified of the latest staff stance, he asked.

The staff recommendation regarding the barrier islands has not changed since May, she replied. Nonetheless, Thompson emphasized, “you are going to have to provide ample parking, and we know that the barrier islands don’t have ample parking.”

When Chair John Ask sought clarification about the discussions Thompson had had since May with representatives of the Institute for Justice, she told him the primary concern of the Institute is that the ordinance allow for the county to issue decals, so food trucks could operate wherever they could make arrangements with private property owners.

Planning Commissioner Laura Benson. News Leader photo
Planning Commissioner Laura Benson. News Leader photo

When Commissioner Laura Benson asked how subjective the county’s proposed requirements are in regard to parking spaces and traffic circulation on a site, Thompson said staff can take up to 30 days to visit a proposed site and determine whether it meets the necessary criteria. The county’s Transportation Division employees participate in that process, Thompson added. “There are engineers that can review [property] for circulation.”

“It sounds like a lot of this criteria for the Temporary Use Permit is somewhat nebulous,” Benson responded, “and I don’t know who wants to be the guinea pig in order to determine what the limits to that are.”

Some parcels have larger areas for parking than the code requires, Thompson explained, so those would have room for food trucks; the vendors also could operate on grassy areas on private property.

Vendors’ concerns

During the public hearing, Daniel, the attorney for the Institute for Justice’s Miami office, pointed out to the board, “Sarasota County has some of the very worst food truck laws in the country, so bad that since May, five popular food trucks have gone out of business.”

Providing decals to the vendors, she said, “will allow for safe roaming throughout the county.” The Institute does support a provision in the law that would enable county staff to remove a truck from a site if the truck were threatening public health and safety, Daniel added.

Allison Daniel and Chris Jett confer over proposed language in the ordinance. News Leader photo
Allison Daniel and Chris Jett confer over proposed language in the ordinance. News Leader photo

“If this proposed ordinance is adopted,” Ronald G. Hock told the board, “it will be the death knell of food trucking in Sarasota County.” The draft provisions would work only for “very, very, very large gatherings” of food trucks, he noted. Urging the board to take the same approach Manatee County has, Hock continued, “All we need is a map: ‘You can go here, but not here.’”

Hock is the owner of DaVinci’s Coffee & Gelato Co.

Michelle Jett, owner of the Baja Boys food truck business, told the board, “I am not a stupid person. I can follow the directions. I love making people happy with food. The current regulations are making that very difficult for me. … I am just asking for the right to earn an honest living where I live, here, in Sarasota.”

Jett’s husband, Chris, explained to the commissioners that because of the strict regulations in Sarasota County, food truck operators have to travel to Tampa and other communities so they can earn sufficient income.

Moreover, he said, if the concern is that these mobile kitchens pose a health concern, he wanted the board members to know that over the past five years, only two restaurants in all of Sarasota County have had no health code violations while three food truck operations have achieved that.

Commission discussion

Planning Commissioner Mark Hawkins. News Leader photo
Planning Commissioner Mark Hawkins. News Leader photo

After listening to the public comments, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger suggested that the revised ordinance simply require the vendors to obtain the necessary license and insurance, refrain from parking in spaces mandated by the Zoning Code for a business to function, and work with a private property owner to make sure they do not interfere with traffic circulation on a site. “I can really sympathize with these food truck owners here,” he said.

“We could possibly rewrite [the ordinance] that way,” Thompson replied.

At one point, Commissioner Jack Bispham raised the concern that “brick-and-mortar places” spend a lot more on liability insurance than food truck operators, so they deserve some protections. Chair John Ask reminded him, “It’s not up to us here to protect someone’s business model.”

After further discussion about whether a site plan should be mandated for circumstances where several food trucks would be operating, Benson pointed out, “I think that’s a step backwards … Everything about a food truck defies what we are used to in conventional eating … It’s added a great fabric to the community.” She pointed out, “I think a lot of the concerns we have are fearful concerns, not based on experience and reality. … Why don’t we throw [the ordinance] out there and let it work … Let it be between the property owner and the food truck.”