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Polk County withdraws rule that would have banned food trucks

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  • | 5:00 p.m. February 16, 2024
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Lenora and Kim Crawford at their Touch of Philly mobile food trailer in Polk County.
Lenora and Kim Crawford at their Touch of Philly mobile food trailer in Polk County.
Photo by Calvin Knight
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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The food (truck) fight in one Polk County city is over — for now.

On Thursday night, the Haines City Commission withdrew a proposed ban on most food trucks, and also a draft of an alternative ordinance that would have placed numerous regulations on the mobile vendors. Haines City is about 60 miles east of Tampa.

The first Haines City food truck ordinance was passed on first reading in mid-January, but was delayed on final passage scheduled for Feb. 1, after food truck vendors and a Washington, D.C.-area legal agency claimed the ordinance violated Florida law.

The Haines City Commission, after at least one delay, planned to pass the ordinance at a meeting Thursday night.

But during the two weeks or so between first read and scheduled second-read passage, a group against the ban made their voices heard through Facebook and social media. And their legal ally, the Institute for Justice, sent in Katrin Marquez, a Yale Law-educated, Miami-based attorney, to testify about the two ordinances and what she says was their shaky legal status.

"Every single version that the city has considered thus far would not serve the public health and safety," says Marquez, speaking at the meeting. "It would just protect restaurants from competition, which is unconstitutional. The state of Florida already regulates food trucks. The city should not be adding additional burdens on these hard-working people."

But the Haines City Commission might not be done curbing food trucks. 

City attorney Fred Reilly told the Business Observer Friday that he asked the city commission to schedule a workshop for March 21, during which he will present two ordinance options.

"I have not yet completed drafting of the two ordinance options," says Reilly. "At that workshop, the city commission will likely consider when to schedule the new ordinance for first reading."

The original proposal banned most food trucks and required the rest to stay at least 500 feet away from food businesses, the institute says.

The Institute for Justice says the second proposed ordinance would have restricted food trucks to one truck per lot; required each truck to provide three parking spaces for customers; prohibited food trucks from having tables and seating; dictated they park on concrete or asphalt; and limited the number of hours they could operate.

Those new terms were also unacceptable to food truck operators, and the second proposal was shelved.

The institute — a nonprofit legal organization with libertarian and pro-business leanings — had been contacted by Polk County resident Lenora Crawford, who owns a food truck named "A Touch of Philly." The Philadelphia native had contacted the institute after being denied a business tax receipt by Haines City Hall just after the turn of the year.

Crawford, her husband Kim Crawford and other food truck operators alleged the city had not even passed the new ordinance but was enforcing it, declining to issue business tax receipts to food trucks. Crawford used Google to find the institute, which jumped into the food fracas in mid-January.

Crawford soon had local allies: other food truck operators and the Tampa-based Florida Food Truck Association, which lobbied Florida statehouse leaders for protection for food trucks. The association's leader, Michael Blasco, says a 2021 state law preempts "mobile food dispensing vehicles" from local permits and fees, because one permit will do.

And Facebook pages began springing up — deriding the ban and placing pressure on the city's elected leaders. One of them was the Facebook page, "Save Haines City Food Trucks Coalition," which had more than 130 members as of this week.

Members of the Facebook page say the regulations made operating a food truck difficult. They spread the email addresses of city leaders and urged people to rally.

In the end, the city faced something of a legal brick wall: The 2021 law Marquez referred to, a deregulatory package part of red-tape cutting by Statehouse Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The state law and eventual amendments do not regulate food trucks as much as they forbid cities and counties from banning them.

The Florida law says "a municipality, county or other local governmental entity may not prohibit mobile food dispensing vehicles from operating within the entirety of the entity's jurisdiction." And it says a municipality, county or other local governmental entity "may not require a separate license, registration, or permit other than the license required (by the state)."

Michael Blasco, CEO of Tampa Bay Food Trucks and head of the Florida Food Truck Association, told the Business Observer that the state law was forged to prevent food trucks from being forced to pay for multiple business tax receipts. Blasco says food trucks were getting hit up for fees in each city they tried to operate in. The law put an end to that practice.

Blasco says the problem now is food truck operators usually cannot argue the law or hire an expensive attorney if a Florida city or county ignores the state food-truck rules, and tries to collect fees from food trucks.


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