TARPON SPRINGS — When city commissioners first addressed proposed changes to the city’s code regarding food trucks in order to comply with a statewide mandate that went into effect July 1, the subject touched off a lengthy discussion about where they should be allowed to operate in town.
While all five board members agreed with the ordinance that would allow mobile food vending vehicles to operate in certain commercial and industrial sections, mainly along U.S. Highway 19, on a temporary basis, some supported allowing food trucks to be used as an accessory to existing food and beverage businesses throughout the city, including at the Sponge Docks and in the district downtown.
The ordinance passed on first reading Sept. 8 by a vote of 4-1, with Mayor Chris Alahouzos casting the no vote. When the item came for second and final reading Sept. 22, the commission voted 3-2 in favor of the legislation, paving the way for mobile food vending vehicles to operate in the designated areas or as an accessory use to an existing food and beverage establishment anywhere in town, a decision that was met with disapproval from the mayor.
“I believe 56.05 (the ordinance) satisfied the demand of House Bill 1193 the way it’s written, because it says we must provide a designated area for the trucks to operate, which we did,” Alahouzos said by phone the next day. “(Section) 56.06 was engineered to help breweries, wineries and distilleries that were forced to close during the pandemic, but now that they have passed legislation allowing them to serve food and to reopen bars, it’s not needed. So, my position is 56.06 is not good for Tarpon Springs. It’s a mistake.”
During the latest meeting, Alahouzos said he’d received many calls and emails from restaurant owners and workers who were against allowing the food trucks as an accessory use, with the mayor stating, “We don’t want someone to put a trailer in back of a business and become a restaurant in a couple of days.”
But others, including Commissioner Townsend Tarapani, noted the legislation wouldn’t allow just any business to add a food trailer, only an existing restaurant, and he spoke in favor of allowing the option.
“I understand the sensitivity of it being in the Special Area Plan, but personally, I think that it’s a good thing,” Tarapani said of allowing food trucks to operate in the segment of town with specific standards and guidelines that includes the docks and downtown. “I don’t see how it hurts the other businesses too much. Downtown, if anything, I think it will help promote some more redevelopment of these buildings that we have within the area.”
Commissioner Connor Donovan also expressed support for 56.06, clarifying that a gift or retail shop would not be eligible to add a food truck and stating he believed having both options provides “a great balance for protecting existing business owners while also giving those business that want the flexibility of trying to make more money that opportunity.”
Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis cautioned the board was “legislating on the fly” by rushing to pass the ordinance without having detailed background information regarding the trucks as well as significant public input on the topic, and several public commenters agreed with the idea to postpone the vote.
“The state bill went into effect on July 1,” Anthony Saroukos said. “Can’t we get back into City Hall first, out of the woods with COVID, and have an actual community workshop around this?”
Saroukos said he agreed with Vatikiotis’ statement about “making legislation on the fly,” adding, “I just would hope we could sit down and talk about it before this becomes the new ordinance tonight.”
Despite the pleas, the commission decided to make a final decision that night.
“I don’t think this is a decision on the fly,” Vice Mayor Jacob Karr said. “I feel like this is a decision we need to make tonight to move forward.”
After more discussion and a failed first motion, the item eventually passed, 3-2, with Alahouzos and Vatikiotis voting against the ordinance.
“The decision was final, but my position has not changed,” the mayor reiterated afterward. “We have 55 restaurants in town, and they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to open, and now someone who opened a business to serve wine can lease a food truck and it becomes a restaurant. I don’t believe that.