Commissioners question legality of some measures staff has proposed
A staff proposal for a revised City of Sarasota ordinance to prevent through truck traffic in neighborhoods has raised City Commission concerns about potential legal ramifications.
As a result, the board unanimously approved a Nov. 20 motion by Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, asking City Attorney Robert Fournier and his staff to research other communities’ ordinances regarding truck traffic and questions of the constitutionality of stopping drivers.
For the last item during the commission’s approximately eight-hour-and-25-minute meeting on Nov. 20 (see the related story in this issue), City Engineer Alex DavisShaw reported that staff already had begun working with Fournier’s staff and the Sarasota Police Department on better ways to keep through truck traffic out of residential areas.
On Nov. 4, DavisShaw presented a PowerPoint presentation about the initiative to members of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA), a staff memo noted.
“Large trucks in neighborhoods cause a lot of concerns,” DavisShaw told the commissioners on Nov. 20. Although the city needs to provide trucks access to their destinations, she continued, the Police Department has found it difficult to enforce the current law.
Section 33-53 of the City Code of Ordinances says, “The city engineer is authorized to designate certain streets as truck routes to be used for the expeditious and convenient movement of farm tractors, trailers, semitrailers, trucks and other commercial vehicular traffic, and shall give notice thereof by means of appropriate signs placed along such streets.”
“There isn’t a cohesive definition” of what constitutes a no-through-trucks route, DavisShaw said. Some streets are not marked as being forbidden to through trucks, while those parallel to them are, she pointed out. “It really is a bit confusing. … We want to revise that.”
Staff is proposing to designate specific routes for trucks, including arterial streets and some collectors, she added.
Another significant problem officers have reported regards the very definition of a truck, DavisShaw told the board. The goal is “really making sure that the truck is easy to identify by our police personnel.”
The current law says any vehicle over 1 ton is considered a truck. Therefore, she noted, an officer has to stop a vehicle to try to gauge its weight.
Alarm about enforcement
“In terms of enforcement,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert asked, “how is a police officer going to know if [a truck is] using a [residential street] as a through [route]?” Will an officer “stop … and harass the driver?”
Under the current law, DavisShaw responded, officers follow vehicles to determine whether violations have occurred; police base their responses on the amount of time a truck remains on a street the drivers should not be using as a through route.
One suggestion staff has proposed is designating quadrants, DavisShaw said: If a truck remains on a no-through route for more than five blocks without making a delivery, for example, it would be in violation of the new law.
“It’s going to be a nightmare for enforcement,” Freeland Eddie responded.
“That’s what I think, too,” Alpert agreed.
“We don’t have extra officers now,” Freeland Eddie added.
“In talking to the police, this would be a lot easier for them to enforce than what we have on the books now,” DavisShaw noted of the travel distance component of the revised law.
Another proposal is to use the presence of six tires on a vehicle as a standard for defining it as a truck, she continued.
“I don’t know how you’re going to convince me that this is going to be enforceable, maybe [it is] not even constitutional,” Commissioner Hagen Brody told her. “I can’t imagine a police officer pulling someone over because they see a truck in one of your quadrants, that being probable cause to detain someone.”
DavisShaw explained that enforcement would be the issuance of a ticket, similar to a parking ticket.
If someone is detained, Brody told her, that situation is not comparable to the issuance of a parking ticket. The latter, he said, is a non-moving violation.
“Some of these quadrants are more than five blocks,” Alpert added, looking at the proposed map DavisShaw had provided the board.
Officers already are following trucks, DavisShaw reiterated her earlier comment, to determine whether drivers are violating the city law.
“I would readily acknowledge all the challenges you have made about enforceability,” City Attorney Fournier told the commissioners. He suggested staff could continue working on a draft ordinance and then bring it back for board discussion before advertising it for public hearings.
“I would respectfully request that some legal research be done before we even do that, because I am concerned,” Freeland Eddie replied.
Calling the issue “uniquely policy-based,” Brody said he felt staff should have approached a commissioner first about championing the issue. He added that he believes securing such support for an initiative at the outset “is more appropriate” than having staff pursue the revision of a law on its own.
“I cannot see, really, the constitutionality of these stops,” he repeated his earlier point. “This is really just to hammer the little guy, the driver,” who may or may not be a city resident, Brody added.
“Cities do this all over,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said, adding that the board could direct DavisShaw to research best practices.
“I think this is a step in the right direction,” Ahearn-Koch continued, “to help alleviate some of the traffic issues that we have now with trucks on our streets.”
Freeland Eddie said she would like to protect trees and private property, as well as promote safety on residential streets. After she made the motion to ask staff to conduct more research, Brody seconded it, and then it passed unanimously.