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Nix food truck regs

By Staff | Jan 19, 2023

Come hell and high water, the wheels of government still do to go round and round.

That’s both good and not so good.

Case in point: The city of Cape Coral will circle back next Wednesday with a proposal to eliminate “food-truck based outdoor restaurants.”

The proposed ordinance would regulate mobile food vendors by emphasizing the “mobile” portion of the state licensing designation, by 1) requiring such vendors to move each night and 2) prohibiting related seating and tents.

This would impact a number of vendors who, critics point out, have operated in the Cape for years.

City staff patterned the measure after Lee County regulations.

The ordinance also provides for new use — the ability to create mobile food courts or “food truck parks.”

“This new use will require full site improvements, onsite bathrooms, parking, sidewalks, etc., and is designed to accommodate regular and long-term deployment of food trucks,” the city said in a summation of the ordinance proposal, adding this portion was adapted from the city of Bonita Springs.

The bid to regulate food trucks is not a new one in the Cape where it has failed in the past as the impact on existing vendors has been a deal breaker for members of the Cape Coral City Council.

The effort gained traction last April when city staff felt it had received “a high level of comfort” from Council by looking to Lee County regs. Support also was expressed at a city council workshop on Sept. 14.

The ordinance now set for public hearing at Wednesday’s 4:30 p.m. Council meeting got a nod of approval from the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission in December.

P&Z commissioners dissenting in the 5-2 vote, though, brought up the same concerns that led Council to previously kick this back to staff.

Commissioner Anthony Bennie feared that some of the regulations could force food trucks out of business. Commissioner Ken Fioretti shared that concern and added that the regulations, as proposed, are too severe.

Commissioner Bennie also had concerns with the food court or park provision, saying the city was essentially creating a new type of business endeavor that could force out small entrepreneurs in favor of larger-scale enterprise.

“You can have a food court on two acres and 10 trucks and get rent from them. It goes from a small family business to something controlled by who has the most money,” he said. “I know we can’t have chaos but once we get into that regulatory mode, it becomes a backwards way of putting someone out of business.”

The fact that food trucks were a lifesaver for many, many residents after Hurricane Ian’s storm surge and wind destroyed thousands of homes and businesses on Sept. 28 was also pointed out.

A couple of things.

First, the city has limited authority here. Legislation passed in 2020 specifically precludes local governments from banning food trucks or requiring additional local licensing. MFVs are licensed by the state, which retains oversight.

Local governments — the city, the county — can regulate the how and the where, though, through land development codes “for the safety of the public and customers of MFVs.”

This is what the city is proposing to do — to impose operational and zoning regulations and to levy fines for food truck operators who fail to comply with such things as failing to park wholly on an impervious surface, who provide “accommodations” such as a tent or seating for patrons, who post improper signs or who fail to move daily.

The ordinance would require existing food trucks to remove ancillary amenities such as picnic tables and shade pop-ups, would prohibit permanent utility connections and would require driving the truck or hauling the cart or trailer off site every day — to park… where?

According to state licensing records, there are approximately 222 city-based vendors with approximately 66 providing a city location for their food truck. (Most have listed locations in other areas of Lee County.) How many are actually operating and so would be impacted by the ordinance up for a vote Wednesday could not be determined. (Despite months of effort bringing this forward, the city could not provide a number by press time and a public records request for a list, if any, also had not yet been provided.)

But, for argument’s sake, let’s say as many as 60 or so small businesses.

The ordinance has no provision to “grandfather” these existing businesses to allow them to continue operating as some of them have for years.

That is a problem.

A big one, especially in a city where voters just approved an economic incentive program that directly impacts their pocketbooks to get businesses to move here or expand.

Let us be blunt: A pro-business city does not regulate existing, code-compliant businesses out of business, force them to move elsewhere or jump through new hoops under the guise of new land development codes.

Council should keep the working status quo or, at minimum — at bare minimum — grandfather in existing businesses. Let them stay put. Let them keep seating that does not impede foot or vehicular traffic if their arrangement with the private property owner allows for such.

Why?

Business development. The very thing every city official says Cape Coral wants and needs.

Consider:

According to insurancebee.com, the food truck industry is a $1.8 billion industry nationwide with an estimated 35,000 such trucks in operation. That’s up from 24,000 in 2020.

Florida comes in at No. 3 in the total number of trucks, behind California and Texas.

Collectively they represent more than 40,000 jobs.

The city’s focus should be on the potential for viable business growth. Regulations should focus only on outcome based restrictions, not the city’s summation argument that “mobile means mobile.” This arbitrary duration concept has been rejected by cities where food trucks not only thrive but help generate a “foodie” reputation and, proponents say, foster traditional brick-and-mortar eateries as well.

Let us point out again that the requirement to move nightly is also a great disservice to those already doing business here.

These things said, we do not suggest this ordinance be rejected in its entirety — there is a concept that makes good economic sense.

That’s the provision for mobile food courts.

We thank staff for its efforts to draft this proposed land use. And we urge Council to pursue this concept. It would be a nice addition.

It might just give the market itself the ability to address most of the city’s “put the mobile” in mobile food vehicles issues to rest.

–Breeze editorial

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