Apalachicola city commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to permit and regulate food trucks operating on commercial properties within the city.
The regulations, however, are not yet fully baked; commissioners plan to go back next month and consider amendments, including whether to loosen the newly-enacted rules so as to allow trucks to operate at a single property for more than the allowed three days, and to not require them to be removed from the site after 72 hours.
In addition, Commissioner Jimmy Elliott, who pushed for lessening restrictions, wants to remove the prohibition against vendors creating a dining area that includes tables, chairs, benches or umbrellas.
The commission’s 4-0 vote - Mayor Van Johnson was absent due to being out of town on city-related business – followed a lengthy discussion, in which two of the town’s existing food truck vendors, Ashley Grieg with “Bacon Me Crazy,” and Elisabeth Thomas, operator of “The Mellow Mullet,” spoke out, along with several other restaurateurs and residents, including Adrianne Elliott, the commissioner’s’ granddaughter.
“I have always supported businesses here, they are the heart of every city,” said Commissioner Elliott, who offered amendments to the ordinance that would have allowed food trucks to operate for twice as many days, six, on a specific property, and allow them to remain on site throughout that entire week.
City Attorney Pat Floyd told commissioners that adopting a modified ordinance, without proper public notice of these changes, would run contrary to the law, and advised that they not include the amendments if they wished to pass the ordinance properly. Elliott’s motion to adopt the laxer rules failed after a 2-2 vote, with Commissioners Anita Grove and Brenda Ash both voting no.
Grove, who moved for passage of the ordinance, throughout the back-and-forth with the audience defended the validity of the process that went into drafting the city’s first sweeping set of food truck regulations. She also fended off attacks from food truck proponents who contended the city had no legal authority to set restrictions on food trucks operating on private commercial property zoned to allow brick-and-mortar food service operations.
“It’s not that we don’t want food trucks, it’s that we don’t have the ordinance,” Grove said. “It’s not unconstitutional; it’s the current laws and regulations we worked very hard at. We don’t want to create something that’s going to affect (negatively) a lot of people.”
In her remarks, Grieg, who in March ignited the expedited process for passing an ordinance after she was denied the right to operate her truck, on a long-term basis, in the courtyard adjacent to the Apalachicola Ice Company on Water Street, was critical of the new rules, saying the three-day limit would render her business unprofitable.
“I’m not building a structure,” she said. “It’s my property, why can’t I have picnic tables? Your ordinance would require me to remove them. I can’t adhere to that.
“I’m on wheels, I’m not building anything, not little nitpicky things like that,” Grieg said.
“It’s not a nitpicky thing,” replied Grove. “It’s a foundational question. This is a land development code developed over 50 years, we spend a lot of time on them, they are well-thought-out.
“It’s not something we do lightly,” she said. “We have to make a decision that’s going to be fair to everybody and have to consider what the consequences will be.”
Grieg also reiterated her beef with City Planner Cindy Clark, who she said wrongfully interfered with her attempt to get a business license to operate “Bacon Me Crazy,” and further alleged that Clark had tossed the matter to the city commission because she owns property a few doors down on Water Street that she plans to eventually turn into a food service establishment.
That contention also had been voiced publicly in recent weeks by Mark and Mary Lynn Rodgers, whose daughter Erin is a part owner of the Apalachicola Ice Company.
The criticism of Clark’s role drew stern rebukes both from City Manager Ron Nalley and from Apalachicola resident Bonnie Davis.
“That’s a gross misrepresentation for what happened,” said Nalley. “It was a good call made by a staff person it was the right call.”
In a personal request within her public remarks, Davis said she had “come to appreciate her (Clark’s) work quite a bit. I think it’s what you want in a professional staff member, the consistent application of the land use code. She calls the balls just right and she’s entitled to deference and respect.”
Commissioner Elliott echoed their feelings. “You shouldn’t blame the code enforcers for doing their jobs, for enforcing the codes,” he said.
Mary Lynn Rodgers said licensure of the truck “was attempted and it was thwarted and that is why the citizens have been in an uproar. We felt like it was unfair and that it went against the existing code.”
Adriane Elliott, as well as Grieg, both cited a letter from attorney Ari Bargill, of the non-profit Washington-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal group that has argued for the unhindered right of food trucks to operate without burdensome or arbitrary restrictions.
Grove argued that the city’s proposed rules, put together after staff review of city ordinances from around Florida, as well as after discussions between Nalley and local restaurateurs, were needed to clearly address the impact these trucks may have in the future on the city’s infrastructure, such as parking requirements, trash accumulation, and water and sewer usage.
“Are you opening a restaurant or are you opening a temporary food truck?” said Grove. “When does it become a permanent established eatery and when is it a mobile food truck?”
She also pointed to food truck rules in Pensacola, an area proponents have cited as an example of a bustling food truck city, and noted their strictness, including rules requiring grease traps, water and sewer hookups, and color consistency, and disallowing generators.
The commission is likely to take up Elliott’s proposed amendments, as well as consideration that food trucks not be allowed in all four commercial districts as well as the riverfront zones.
Davis sought to have the food trucks not allowed in C-2 zoning, such as along portions of U.S. 98 in on the Hill, because these areas are surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
“They have a different flavor from the other commercial zones,” said Davis, noting that there are no public restrooms in these areas, and no restrooms available if you locate on a vacant lot, no daily trash pickup and no private businesses in the vicinity open after 10 p.m.
“Compliance would be difficult to enforce,” she said.
Both David Walker and Valentina Webb, residents of the Hill, spoke out against singling out C-2 zones, and said they wanted to see food trucks be able to help revitalize business in that neighborhood.
Nalley said a “positive and productive exchange” with the food service industry had led to changes in the original draft of the legislation, including dropping a commissary requirement that is addressed in state licensing rules, as well as signage requirements.
“We removed sections that were redundant,” he said. “Some people thought it would be nice to have a food court, and this allows that to take place.”
The rules also call for using only single-service, individually wrapped utensils and cups and containers required for all bulk drinks, and stored in closed cartons, a point which Apalachicola restaurateur Cassie Gary questioned.
“Individually wrapped cups is silly,” she said.
Apalachicola resident Lois Swoboda urged commissioners to consider requiring that all food containers be biodegradable. “By 2050, by weight, there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish,” she said.
Apalachicola businessman George Mahr said the new rules would crimp the ability of these food truck entrepreneurs from profiting from their ventures.
“I’m thinking about putting a mobile food truck on my property, and three days a week, that is not profitable,” he said. “And then you tell me I have to move it?”
He also took exception to setting a size limit on the trucks, which now can be no more than 10 feet wide and 24 feet long. Also, they must comply with covering no more than 80 percent of the lot with impervious surface, and if they operate for more than three hours, have to have a written agreement in place that employees have access to a flushable, permanent restroom.
“I think the way this is written is so overreaching. We’re not here to stifle our businesses,” Mahr said.
As they stand now, the food trucks can operate with hours similar to downtown restaurants, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, and up until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Vendors are responsible for all trash pickup, and no more than one truck can operate on a property at any one time, with a special exception allowable in the event more than one is sought.
Vendors will be able to obtain the proper permit in the days ahead, once the state gives its blessing, which is likely to happen, since Nalley consulted closely with state officials in the drafting of the ordinance.