Proposed city rules for mobile food trucks that are being considered by the City Council would impose severe restrictions on how and where they operate.
If adopted, the rules would result in keeping food trucks and carts away from the most popular parts of downtown.
Dave Goodwin, with the city's planning and economic development, presented plans to regulate how often a food truck can operate and how close it can be located to other businesses.
Proposed regulations for downtown (5th N. to 5th S. and Bay to I-275)
- Vendors cannot be within 500 feet of another restaurant.
- Food trucks cannot operate within 500 feet of a special event.
- Food trucks can only use public right-of-way spaces adjacent to Mirror Lake, Al Lang Stadium and the Pier approach
- Restaurants may grant a waiver to allow a food truck to operate.
- Mobile food vendors can only use parallel parking spaces, no angled parking
Food trucks are currently allowed in St. Pete, but the regulations offered by city staff on Thursday would force them from the downtown core, where most businesses operate and consumers congregate. City staff presented maps with 250 foot and 500 foot buffers around businesses downtown.
In the downtown core of public right-of-way spaces, food trucks could operate at Mirror Lake, Williams Park, North Straub Park, South Straub Park, Al Lang Field and the Pier Approach, with a 250 foot buffer.
With a 500-foot buffer, which was suggested Thursday by Council as a starting point, the permissable areas would include only the Pier approach, Al Lang Field and the Mirror Lake.
City staff proposed regulations for outside the downtown core
- Private properties can allow mobile food vendors, but only for two consecutive days per week.
- No more than two mobile trucks at one property at one time
- Can hold special events no more than 14 times over the course of six months
Council member Jeff Danner said there are many vacant lots along Central Avenue that could serve as a great landing place for the mobile food vendors. He said having food trucks fill vacant areas would draw more people throughout downtown.
"Nobody goes west because of that," Danner said of the vacant lots. "Get to about 8th street (on Central), there are big gaps in vacant lots. I think there’s an opportunity to use the lower investment of the food truck, mobile nature, to encourage development where it’s needed and not follow it where it’s not needed."
City staff recommended not allowing vendors to use any vacant lots because it could deter development.
The question of food trucks came to a head when local brick and mortar restaurants sought help from the Chamber of Commerce, arguing that mobile food trucks have an unfair business advantage.
Jim Janolek, owner of a local veggie hot dog stand "Lettuce Eat Healthy," said in the free market it is not government's job to referee business-to-business competition.
"The question that runs through my mind repeatedly, Where is it in government’s job to make business-to-business competition fair or unfair?" Janolek said. "It is free enterprise. It is not governments job to interfere with business."
Council member Jim Kennedy took the most hard-line stance on the food trucks. He does not want any.
Kennedy and St. Pete's Chamber said food trucks have an advantage by not paying property taxes and paying all the fees brick and mortar spaces are required to.
"To me it’s all about tax revenue," Kennedy said. "I think we’ve got a downtown that is thriving with the brick and mortar restaurants as we have them. I don’t see how food trucks contribute at all to the revenue base. My personal opinion ... prohibit them in the entire downtown area."
Mike Fitzgerald, owner of a food cart, Fitzy's Franks, said that kind of thinking is why food vendors should have been allowed to speak at Thursday's meeting.
"They don’t have all the facts," Fitzgerald said. "They should have given us an opportunity to speak. We know all the regulations because we follow them."
Council member Wengay Newton did not state if he supported the proposed regulations but did say the separation buffer between food vendors and brick and mortar businesses should stop once the business is closed.
If a restaurant's closed on Sunday or closes at 10 p.m., Newton questioned why a food vendor would not be allowed to operate during that time.
"How could it be advantageous (to brick and mortar businesses) if they are not even open?" Newton asked.
The institute, a civil liberties firm, said the city could be violating laws by restricting business competition.
"The Constitution of Florida says you have a right to earn a honest living," said Institute for Justice attorney, Claudia Murray. "You guys have this important right and we are going to help enforcement. It's unconstitutional for any type of business to use the government to help them stifle competition."
Council member Leslie Curran said going forward the council should have a meeting where the two sides can present their case publicly in front of the council.
"We need to make sure that we are fair to both sides, brick and mortar and the food trucks," Curran said.
She added that it's unfair to the mobile food vendors that there is a perception that they are just running around unregulated. "(The are) licensed and regulated," she said. "They have to pay fees. They are inspected. It is a pretty heavily regulated industry. They are not just out there unregulated.
"There is some equitable solution besides saying absolutely no," Curran added.
Curran said if you include valet services, horse rides and pedal taxis and the Saturday morning market, the city is already giving away the right-of-way for public use.
"Got the pedal pub, the horse and carriage, so much valet in front of everybody’s restaurant. Talk about giving away public right of way for private entities to make money," Curran said. "We have done it to the max."
She compared food truck vendors to the Saturday morning market. The market operates within 500 feet of downtown restaurants.
"Every week small businesses are out there," Curran said. "We tout the Saturday morning market. Do they pay the same thing other small businesses pay, no. What do we want to say, 'no more market because they don’t pay what brick and mortar pay?' Absolutely not."
The next meeting about food trucks is tentatively scheduled for March 22 at 9:15 a.m. The city also said that before a final decision is made, each side will get to present its opinion publicly before the council.