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Food truck ordinance revised, expected on Tuesday agenda
City staff asked council to block vendors from residential areas; hospital has special OK
food truck
Customers flock to the Chazito's Latin Cuisine food truck during the May 2018 Fiesta de Mayo First Friday sponsored by the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority. A city ordinance regulating food trucks in Statesboro has not been approved yet, after City Council returned it to first-reading status for revisions to prevent food truck operators from routinely setting up in residential areas. (Photo courtesy DSDA)

A city ordinance regulating food trucks in Statesboro has not been approved yet, after City Council returned it to first-reading status for revisions to prevent food truck operators from routinely setting up in residential areas.

In the version sent forward by a 4-0 council vote on the original first reading Dec. 1, the proposed “Mobile Food Service” Ordinance would have allowed retail food trucks and food pushcarts to operate anywhere in the city limits that property owners gave written permission.

Even then it would have required that a list of sites where the vending trucks operate be submitted for city staff approval, and operators would have needed to buy a permit and meet fire safety and other requirements.

But City Attorney Cain Smith had commented that the Dec. 1 version would allow food trucks “to operate in all zoning districts.”

A second reading of the ordinance for possible final approval was placed on the agenda for the mayor and council’s Dec. 15 meeting. But by then, city staff members had some second thoughts, Smith informed the elected officials.

“Staff expressed concerns about the revisions to the food truck ordinance regarding placement of trucks in all zoning districts, especially as to operation within residential zones,” he read from a memo. “It is our recommendation that food trucks not be allowed in residential zones without receiving an administrative variance with conditions, particularly as to the times and dates allowed.”


Vacant-lot fears

One major concern, raised by Planning and Development Director Kathy Field, involved “the idea of a person being able to operate in a vacant lot in a residential neighborhood and coming back every single day,” Smith said. Also under the rules, once a food truck is more than 400 feet from the nearest restaurant, the truck’s operator could set up temporary seating, he noted.

“You can understand where the problem and the concern lies there,” Smith said. “Our recommendation is that either they be restricted to areas where restaurants are allowed or they be restricted to areas where commercial activity is allowed, in those zoning districts.”

Speaking on behalf of staff members, he also recommended restoring a section from an earlier draft that will allow the city planning director to grant variances that allow temporary mobile food service in other areas.

“In the event that a neighborhood wished to do some sort of event, or if someone wished to have some sort of party and wanted to have a food truck for a day or two, then the director of planning and zoning could grant that variance, and that operation could take place,” Smith said.

District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum said he wanted to clarify that this would prevent food trucks “operating as a cash business” in residential neighborhoods but that someone could still rent out a food truck to serve people at a private gathering. Smith and City Manager Charles Penny agreed.

“That’s why the planning director could grant that (variance), but what we didn’t want to have happen  is someone come in and set up a food truck, and it’s there 365 days a year and they actually run the business out of a residential  zone,” Penny said.

After Boyum asked whether, for example, a variance would be needed for someone bringing in the Three Tree Coffee trolley for a private party, Penny suggested that the wording could be “tweaked” to allow this without the need for a variance. But a variance from the city planning director would be required for a neighborhood festival, he added.

Boyum noted that many churches are in residential zones and said they should need to “just run it by” the city planning director before holding an event with food trucks.


All commercial zones

District 5 Councilwoman Shari Barr made the motion directing Smith to revise the proposal so as to allow food trucks in all commercial zones, and not just in areas where restaurants are already allowed.

“I like to be as least-restrictive as possible,” Barr said.

But under her motion, a staff variance will be required for food trucks in non-commercial areas, she said.

Council approved this 5-0. But because the revision is substantial, Smith said the proposed ordinance would need to revert to a new first-reading. A hearing is held with a first reading, and Penny said this one will be on the agenda for the council’s first meeting of 2021, at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan.  5.

If the first reading is approved, the proposal will go to a second reading at another meeting.


Hospital’s exception

However, East Georgia Regional Medical Center will not have to wait for final approval of the ordinance to host food trucks. Some of the recent interest in food trucks grew from a request to bring mobile food vendors to the hospital campus to serve nurses and other medical personnel working during the pandemic.

City officials had noted that the hospital is zoned “O” for “office,” and restaurants are generally not allowed in office zones, even though the hospital obviously has a cafeteria.

However, City Council unanimously approved a zoning special exception, also Dec. 15, allowing food trucks on the hospital’s grounds, with EGRMC officials’ approval, of course. Under the stated conditions, each vendor will need a temporary vendor permit for limited dates of operation, and none will be allowed to take a permanent space there.

The city Planning Commission had also unanimously recommended this exception. 

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