Abby Cook serves customers at Cocoa's Dog House food truck outside of Star2Star Communications in Sarasota on Friday. STAFF PHOTO / DAN WAGNER

Bittersweet victory for food trucks

Food truck owners secured a bittersweet victory Thursday night in their bid to relax Sarasota County’s stringent street vendor rules.

The county’s Planning Commission largely endorsed overhauls to eliminate the county’s most restrictive regulations on food trucks and follow owners’ suggestions to simplify the rules even further.

But to craft the proper language for those changes, further rewrites will be necessary to the ordinance and the commission unanimously agreed to delay a formal decision until the next available hearing time on its busy schedule — mid-August.

The county has crafted a series of changes to its street vendor codes to eliminate restrictions that food trucks must be 800 feet from an established restaurant, unless given written consent, or 750 feet from each other. The new rules would also allow food trucks in most commercial areas, instead of in the few largely industrial areas permitted now, with County Commission approval required for trucks on the barrier islands.

But the changes drafted for the commission Thursday included stipulations that would require food truck owners to obtain an annual permit for each location where they would like to set up and sell, or for property owners to obtain an annual permit to host trucks, which some food truck owners believe could become an undue burden on vendors who make a living by going to many locations.

“I know it seems like it’s taken a long time to do this and now it’ll take even longer,” county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson told several relieved, but still frustrated, local food truck owners after the hearing. “But we want to make sure we get something together that makes everyone happy.”

The majority of Planning Commission members agreed that location-by-location set-up would be unfair to trucks and even a huge strain on Thompson, who would have to oversee and manage all of those permits.

Instead, commissioners agreed with Chris Jett — who owns the Baja Boys Grill food truck and heads the SRQ Food Truck Alliance — and the Institute for Justice, a legal advocacy group focused on street vendor rules and working with the alliance.

Together, the institute and local food trucks owners suggest the county should simply issue a type of decal or general annual permit to food trucks permitted by the state, allow food trucks to sell in locations that don’t cause traffic or parking problems, and to institute fines to punish trucks that break those rules.

Thompson, who has worked closely with food truck owners to relax the rules, will reword those changes into the proposed new ordinance with the alliance and institute. The commission will consider the changes at its meeting Aug. 18 and forward its recommendation to the County Commission.

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