Tarpon wrangles with new food truck law

City commissioners recently voted 4-1 in favor of allowing mobile food trucks to operate in the city’s industrial districts and on U.S. Highway 19, and not downtown or at the Sponge Docks. The decision comes in the wake of a new state law that prohibits municipalities from banning mobile food vendors. The second and final reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 22.

TARPON SPRINGS — In the wake of a new state law prohibiting cities from banning food trucks, officials throughout the Sunshine State have been scrambling to enact regulations regarding where mobile food vending vehicles should be allowed operate in their communities.

Following several discussions on the subject, the Tarpon Springs’ Planning and Zoning Board and the City Commission came to a general consensus that the vehicles could operate in industrial areas and certain sections of U.S. Highway 19 only and not in the historic downtown district or at the Sponge Docks.

The issue drew considerable public feedback during the board’s first reading of the proposed changes to the city’s Land Development Code on Sept. 8, with roughly a half a dozen residents and merchants calling for more relaxed restrictions regarding food trucks.

“It comes to my attention that the food trucks must be on U.S. 19 only. This is very disappointing,” Irene Manglis, owner of Meli Greek Street Donuts, wrote.

Noting she had an agreement in place with a business owner at the docks, Manglis’ email said she “does not want to work on US Highway 19. That is not fair,” and she said the trucks should be able to operate at the Sponge Docks and downtown with support, in the form of a lease or written agreement, from the businesses in the area.

The Tarpon Springs Merchants Association supported Manglis’ position in an email that stated, in part, “We have spoken to many of our merchants (and) we are hearing that the majority of our food, drink and retail store owners are in favor of a food and beverage truck or cart on their own property,” adding they hoped the board would “look at this as an opportunity to give the business owners a venue to create something new and exciting for their establishments that will help them stay open.”

Several local business owners also weighed in support of allowing food trucks all over town.

“While some merchants feel the food trucks or added businesses take away from their own business, I strongly disagree,” Ginger Alemaghides, owner of the Bohemian Gypsea gift shop at 740 N. Pinellas Ave., wrote, adding, “Food trucks done correctly in our downtown and Sponge Docks can only enhance the charm of Tarpon Springs. The more food and shopping we have in the area the more people will be attracted to the area, and everyone will win.”

Elijah Durham, owner of the SOL Burger food truck, argued that businesses such as his deserve to be treated as equal to brick and mortar establishments. “It is almost equally as expensive to open a food trailer or a food truck as it is to open a restaurant,” he said. “It is certainly not a cheap endeavor.”

Durham, who recently formed a partnership with the new Brighter Days Brewing Co., said, “we believe as locals in this community that we can start a food truck and still continue to have that charm that has brought us here and has wanted us to stay here.”

Despite the pleas, Mayor Chris Alahouzos said he would not support allowing food trucks at the docks and downtown, and he said he was also against allowing the units as accessories for breweries, distilleries and other food and beverage establishments.

“I’m not convinced (it’s) the right thing to have in Tarpon Springs,” Alahouzos said. “But I do support (allowing them in the designated areas) and I’m flexible in regards to how late they stay open.”

After much discussion the commission ultimately voted in favor of the ordinance, allowing mobile food trucks to operate in the designated areas between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. with exemptions for breweries, wineries and distilleries and other food and drink establishments, by a vote of 4-1. Alahouzos voted against it.

The second and final reading of the item is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 22.

“In the city of Tarpon Springs, we’ve worked very hard to improve the CRA district and the Sponge Docks through façade and other grants as well as many beautification projects, to make these areas attractive to visitors and businesses to our community,” Alahouzos said by phone a few days later. “Now you can have someone put a trailer in back of their business and become a restaurant in a matter of days, and I don’t think that was fair. I like food trucks, when they’re in the right place and at our special events and festivals, which will continue. But to have them in back (of places) right in the middle of town competing with other restaurants? I don’t agree with that and I don’t support it.”