Urged by a food truck owner denied permission to operate within the commercial district, Apalachicola city commissioners Tuesday evening moved unanimously to expedite the process of drafting rules to govern this growing trend.
The move came following a lengthy discussion of the case of Ashley Grieg, owner of Bacon Me Crazy, which had subleased space from the Apalachicola Ice Company on Water Street, only to learn that existing zoning rules did not allow the truck to operate there.
“There’s not a provision in the code that allows for that,” said City Planner Cindy Clark. ““We don’t have standards right now in the land development code. We have to go through the ordinance procedure.”
Grieg argued that in the absence of specific city zoning rules that would allow her food truck to operate in the commercial district, the situation should be governed by county ordinance, which she said would allow the food truck to operate.
“Nowhere does it state that it’s prohibited,” she said. “There’s nothing in here that says what I was doing is not going to be allowed.”
Grieg said the food truck, fully permitted under state health and safety regulations, would be permanently set up adjacent to an eating and drinking establishment, and would pay sales tax to the city. She presented 17 pages of signed petitions, and when her supporters were asked to stand, nearly the entire audience rose to their feet.
“I lost my job at Harry As because of the hurricane, and I spent every penny I had to buy this truck,” she said. “And now I’m screwed.”
City commissioners voiced support for allowing the food truck, in principle, to operate, but had concerns about circumventing the ordinance-creating process, which was estimated to take anywhere from three to six months.
“I think it’s time we reinvent this,” said Commissioner Anita Grove, referring to rules surrounding food trucks. “The process is there for a reason, we should not circumvent the process.
“You have to follow the process so no one will get hurt in case there are other things,” she said. “There are thousands of people out there that need a voice too.
“I think we can make it go as quickly as possible,” said Grove. “Now is the time to look at it. Maybe we can hurry it up. (But) you want people from Panama City to come in? We have to regulate the people coming in.”
Commissioner Jimmy Elliott took the opposite approach, pressing for immediate permission for Grieg to operate.
“To me there’s no greater American than a volunteer,” he said, referring to the restaurateurs who banded together after Hurricane Michael to feed local people, even if it meant operating outside existing ordinances.
“These vendors were here and were open and feeding people,” he said. “Since we’re rebuilding from that hurricane we should draft a temporary ordinance to allow it.”
Even after City Attorney Pat Floyd pressed for an expedited process for drafting an ordinance, modeled after other cities, which have allowed the growing presence of food trucks, Elliott sought unsuccessfully to secure immediate permission for Grieg to operate.
“I see the smell of the bureaucracy here,” he said. “I would rather give them a temporary permit to operate until we get this thing done. The city should allow them to operate, they’re citizens of the community.
“These are the hard decisions you have to make,” Elliott said.
But several people, including Mayor Van Johnson, cautioned against going around the process.
“What about the next matter you may not be in favor of?” he asked. “You open this can of worms. Believe me, that’s what lawsuits are made out of. I’m cautioning this community to adhere to the process. You’re going to rue the day you don’t.”
Uta Hardy, a member of Planning and zoning; Diane Brewer, a member of the recreation committee; and Bonnie Davis, a civic activist, all spoke out against making a hurried decision in favor of Grieg’s desire to operate.
“It needs to be very well thought out, for water, for sanitation, etc. It can quickly get away from you,” said Brewer.
But Grieg said the state requires steps be taken by food trucks for health and sanitation, and outlined her view that an ordinance could be drafted, based on other cities’, incorporating those concerns.
“I don’t want a free range where food trucks can set up anywhere,” she said. “The state already requires all the things necessary for safety and health.
“If the city doesn’t have an ordinance in place I should be able to operate (according to) county rules,” she said. “If not then I’m going to take my food truck and I’m going to go across the state and residents will leave the city to eat my bacon. We’re asking for a little help in this situation.”
Grieg said she would support rules that would limit food trucks to commercial districts, and require bathrooms within 200 feet as well as sufficient trash receptacles with proper signage.
“When it comes to public safety and health the state does a good job with what they require,” she said. “I’ll literally be held to a higher standard (with state rules). I just don’t want it (local ordinances) to be so complex that it stifles entrepreneurship in the area.”
Grieg was backed up by remarks from Mark and Mary Lynn Rodgers, whose daughter manages the Apalachicola Ice Company.
“This is talking about what you can do with your own private piece of property,” said Mary Lynn Rodgers. “We want the city to have a sensible ordinance concerning our private property ownership.
“This is a capitalist society,” she said. “The city needs it, you need it, I need it.”
Mark Rodgers noted that workers in the Tampa area, as well as other municipalities in the state, frequent food trucks on their lunch hour. “I can’t understand why every other municipality, including Panama City Beach, does this and we cannot jump on board with something so simple as a food truck.
“All of our restaurateurs have signed the petition,” he said. “I don’t understand what the pushback would be. They’re completely self-contained.”
Apalachicola resident Beth Wright noted that there is no food service within the Bowery area.
Hardy, however, cautioned against moving too fast on approving the food truck.
“Let’s write up an ordinance and do it quick,” she said. “We do need to know where these things are parked.”
She said there are several privately-owned commercial lots that could seek immediate approval for a food truck. “We would open Apalachicola to a number of food trucks from all kinds of places. They would take away from our restaurants.”
Davis rose to defend the value of adhering to the process, noting that over the last five years residents have fought for greater transparency in city government.
“We’ve dealt with some very controversial issues,” she said. “The emphasis has been on ‘let’s be transparent and let’s think these things through so we don’t have unintended consequences.
“Land use regulations apply to private property in every other respect,” Davis said. “That isn’t fair to every other person who isn’t here.”
City Attorney Pat Floyd differed with Clark in the interpretation of city laws, arguing that it is a principle of American government ”that if it is not specifically prohibited, it is allowed. That is the bottom line.
“In this particular situation, there’s not anything we have in code that prohibits this particular use. Therefore that principle comes into play that that person can do it,” Floyd said.
Apalachicola resident John Alber said he did not favor “ad hoc permitting. Doing it on the spur of the moment is dangerous. But we can model legislation on that very, very quickly. It is possible to act with expedition and be thorough about it.”