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New regulations could legalize food trucks

Despite some concerns about potential issues with brick-and-mortar restaurants, the city offered an initial endorsement for mobile food businesses.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 22, 2021
Although food trucks have appeared at events in Sarasota for years, the businesses were not permitted to operate without the city issuing a site-specific temporary permit.
Although food trucks have appeared at events in Sarasota for years, the businesses were not permitted to operate without the city issuing a site-specific temporary permit.
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For more than a decade, food trucks have been an increasingly common business across the country, but the city’s zoning code doesn’t recognize they exist.

That could change next month if the City Commission finalizes adoption of a series of zoning text amendments it approved on first reading Tuesday. City staff is proposing new regulations for food trucks, adding a definition to the zoning code and allowing the mobile eateries to operate in several districts around town.

Right now, food trucks are only allowed to operate on private property within the city via a provisional use or temporary activity permit. State regulations adopted in 2020 prohibit local governments from requiring food truck operators to obtain a license or permit to operate.

City staff indicated the new regulations were an effort to comply with state law while also recognizing the modern usage of food trucks.

Staff proposed allowing food trucks to operate on private property by right in the Newtown commercial business district, on the North Trail and on properties zoned downtown edge, industrial or government. Food trucks would be required to obtain written approval from property owners to operate and would not be permitted to make sales in the public right of way. The proposed amendment would create a cap of three food trucks operating at one property at any given time, and food truck operations would be limited to the hours between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Kyle Battie questioned whether the proposed regulations would have a detrimental effect on locally owned brick-and-mortar restaurants in the zone districts where food trucks were allowed.

“You want to help,” Ahearn-Koch said. “You don’t want to create an unfair competitive advantage.”

Planning Director Steve Cover said his professional experience in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin, led him to conclude that food trucks weren’t a significant detriment for business at traditional restaurants.

“Food trucks have no impact on sit-down restaurants because it’s a different customer,” Cover said. “Secondly, even the takeout restaurants — because there’s more activity in the area, actually we found their businesses improved with the addition of food trucks.”

Although the board voted to advance staff’s recommendations, the zoning text amendments could be adjusted at a future meeting before final adoption. To expand the regulations to permit food trucks in additional food districts, the city would need to hold a separate series of public hearings with proper notice, City Attorney Bob Fournier said.

The city’s existing regulations have been a source of frustration for business owners including Kim Livengood, co-proprietor of the Bazaar on Apricot and Lime. When she attempted to bring a food truck to the property, she said it was challenging to stay in line with the city’s rules even after obtaining the necessary provisional use permit. Livengood said she appreciated staff’s willingness to attempt to work with her and encouraged officials to embrace increased flexibility.

“We need them to support new ideas and opportunities for businesses to thrive,” Livengood said in a previous interview.

If finalized, the zoning text amendment would be the latest in a line of regulations designed to better accommodate mobile food services in Sarasota. In 2016, Sarasota County moved to relax regulations that prohibited food trucks from operating within 800 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. In 2018, the city adopted an ordinance designed to permit sales from ice cream trucks.


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