At Tuesday night’s meeting, Apalachicola city commissioners chose not to further change the rules regarding food trucks that they adopted last month.
Instead, they accepted by unanimous vote a staff recommendation to refer the matter to planning and zoning, which will decide whether further relaxing the rules is in accordance with the land development code.
At the May 7 meeting, when commissioners unanimously adopted a rule to allow food trucks to operate no more than three days a week at a single location on private property, and that they be required to move when they are not in operation, Commissioner Jimmy Elliott had championed expanding that limit to six days a week, and allowing them to remain at the location on the days when they are not open for business.
He continued to back that expansion of the rules on Tuesday, and moved to allow it, as well as to lift the prohibition against allowing them to add tables and chairs. But his motion did not receive a second, and ultimately, he agreed with his colleagues to accept the staff recommendation from City Manager Ron Nalley.
Nalley recommended against this relaxation of the rules, arguing that “a more permanent food vendor placement (would) appear to assign a principal use designation to mobile food trucks which would require them or the lot owner to meet commercial development standards, including stormwater and parking normally associated with allowable principal uses.”
In his report, he said allowing this six-day placement “may create a conflict with historic regulations that govern the compatibility of development in the city’s historic district” and recommended they be referred to planning and zoning.
Elliott, along with his colleagues, expressed concern the process would now take longer than the expedited review commissioners sought when they first took up the issue just a couple months ago. But they concluded it was a necessary step if long-term “permanent” placement of food trucks was to be allowed.
In what frequently flared into acrimonious exchanges, food truck vendors and their supporters expressed frustration they still have not been granted occupational licenses, as they await a review of the ordinance by state officials, that was sought by City Attorney Pat Floyd at last months’ passage of the rules.
Elisabeth Thomas, owner of the Mellow Mullet shaved ice truck, said she has been in frequent contact with a staffer at the state agency who told her such a review was unnecessary. “He assured me there was no reason to take this initiative,” she said.
Adriane Elliott, Jimmy Elliott’s granddaughter and a declared candidate for city commissioner, argued that the city was standing in the way of entrepreneurship.
“Hospitality is a driving industry here, why are we fighting against it?” she asked, citing existing city rules that she argued gave food trucks complete allowance to operate without restriction in the city’s commercial zones where restaurants are allowed.
She also opposed any restrictions to food trucks operating in the C-2 district, which some residents argued for at last month’s meeting. She chastised the board for sending it to P and Z, contending that step should have been taken first, so that an ordinance was ready for implementation upon adoption.
The sharpest criticism came from resident Leslie Coon, who all but accused Nalley of improper personal bias and a conflict of interest in his handling of his job, and who was gaveled back to her seat by Mayor Van Johnson. The mayor also asked Police Chief Bobby Varnes to speak to her, and to resident David Fowlkes, and advise them they would be tossed from the meeting if they became disruptive.
“You’re not going to hijack this meeting,” said Johnson. No one was thrown out of the meeting.
Food truck advocates have argued for months that City Planner Cindy Clark acted on a personal agenda, because she owns property down the street from Apalachicola Ice Company, where the Bacon Me Crazy food truck would like to set up on an ongoing basis.
“This is a public meeting and the public can voice their opinions,” said resident Clarice Powell. “I have never been so disappointed in a mayor.”
Nalley and his fellow city staffers had their defenders as well.
“City staff are eminently professional,” said resident Pete Whitesell. “This city is extremely lucky to have city staff as qualified and professional.”
Commissioner Anita Grove said Coon’s criticism of Nalley, when she pressed him to identify unnamed city staff in his report, was misplaced.
“It’s rather than listing all the people’s names, it’s not hiding anything,” she said. “Nobody’s trying to be evasive.
“This is about (vendors) asking for a temporary use on a permanent basis,” said Grove. “Nobody is trying to delay it. Nobody has ulterior motives.”
Erin Rodgers, one of the managers of the Apalachicola Ice Company, sought to calm the tension, arguing in favor of moving forward with the rule change by having P and Z approve occupational licensees,
She said she supported food truck licensure being separated into three categories: the longstanding licensure for trucks to operate at festivals and other one-time events, as well as having them separated into those that operate on an intermittent basis at different locations (which would be subject to the three-day rule), and those that operate at a fixed location, and which would be allowed the expanded six-day standard.
“Special event permits should be completely separate,” said Rodgers. “Give the (rule) more teeth and fix the address, make it ‘fixed’ rather than ‘permanent.’
“It would clarify some things, to make sure we’re not harming our downtown,” said Rodgers. “It’s a great example of what we want to do here.”
Commissioner Brenda Ash praised her approach.
“That is how we have a conversation,” she said. “This body tried to help by expediting the process, but in the end the community began to attack this body and staff, and in the end made the whole situation worse. This body tried to help and this body got attacked.”
The proposed revisions that P and Z will consider also include lifting rules surrounding single-service utensil requirements, and allowing the establishment of a mobile food truck court on both private, as well as public, property. As it stands now, the food truck rules allow vendors to operate on public property only during special events, such as the Florida Seafood Festival or the Independence Day Eve celebration, with specific permission from the city.