Photo by Dan Wagner

Food trucks are free to roam!

Food trucks are officially unfettered and free to roam throughout most commercial areas of unincorporated Sarasota County, thanks to changes that relax its archaic mobile vendor rules.

The County Commission voted unanimously to approve the rules Tuesday, ending more than a year of often frustrating and repeatedly delayed negotiations with a major victory for several dozen local truck owners who have supported the changes.

The decision moved SRQ Food Truck Alliance founder Chris Jett to tears. He has spearheaded the effort to revamp the rules for nearly five years, and he personally shepherded and advocated for the most recent round of changes through a series of obstacles county staff, planners and commissioners threw at the proposal.

Ultimately, the rules approved were a mix of protection measures for residential areas and new freedom for truck owners to make arrangements for their locations without the need for individual permits for each.

“Are they perfect rules? No,” Jett said. “But they’re a big step forward and will allow these entrepreneurs to actually operate their trucks the way they need to be operated, with the ability to move.”

The county’s previous rules, called the worst in the country by a nationwide advocacy group working to change them, largely prohibited trucks from setting up within a few hundred feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants and created burdensome permitting requirements.

After several rewrites and draft proposals, county planners and commissioners endorsed plans that will now require a food truck owner already licensed by the state to apply for and receive one permit to operate throughout commercial and industrial zones in the unincorporated county.

Truck owners will be required to have an agreement with private property owners where they plan to operate and trucks cannot be set up within 150 feet of residential areas, unless parked so that a commercial building site between them, county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson said. Trucks also still must be considered by the commission at a public hearing if they ask to operate on the barrier islands or on public property.

The new rules bring Sarasota County more in line with surrounding counties and cities that allow open roaming throughout certain areas.

The changes are likely to set off reviews in other local jurisdictions. North Port planners have said they were waiting for the county to make changes before considering their own. Jett and food truck owners also said they would like to pitch new rules for the city of Sarasota, which also has cumbersome and site-specific permitting, they said.

County commissioners were satisfied their questions have been answered, though, and capitalized on the irony as they voted just before breaking for lunch.

“Anybody else hungry yet?” Commissioners Charles Hines joked.

“This has certainly been a long process and it might not be exactly what everybody wants, but I think it’s a substantial improvement to the regulatory environment we have to food trucks,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo added. “And, yes, I am hungry.”

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