The City of Turlock will soon closely examine how mobile food facilities fit into the downtown area, following a heated discussion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that left city officials saying they had failed local entrepreneurs.
Turlock resident and former U.S. Marine Christopher Shaun submitted an application to the City of Turlock to receive a permit for his new business Vida-Vital – a mobile food truck that would offer healthy food alternatives in the downtown area.
Shaun was well on his way to being a business owner. He had approval from the property owner where he planned for his food truck to be located — on Main Street across from Dustbowl Brewing Company. He also received a permit from the City that allowed him to begin electrical work in the empty parking lot as he waited for the official mobile food facility permit to be issued. Halfway through the process, however, Shaun’s dreams of opening his new mobile facility came to a screeching halt when the Turlock Downtown Property Owner’s Association brought up concerns of “unfair business advantages” posed by mobile food facilities.
Downtown business owners pay a 42-cent per square foot extra property tax to the association each year to help maintain the downtown area. As a mobile facility would not own a specific property in the downtown core zoning district, it would not be subject to such fees and yet would be reaping the benefits created by the businesses that do, claimed the TDPOA.
As a result, members of the TDPOA wrote a letter to the City of Turlock, asking the Planning Department to immediately freeze the issuance of mobile food facility permits until they could have discussions with the City as to whether or not these trucks are welcomed in the downtown area or what regulations may be imposed if they are.
“We’re really simply asking for a cooling off period to examine the merits of these types of businesses,” said Dana McGarry, TDPOA administrator. “It’s not that we have any particular problem with their entrepreneurial spirit, but our property owners do pay an additional 42-cent per square foot tax for their building, and these properties that these vendors are moving onto are without any buildings and do not pay these taxes, yet they derive the benefit.”
McGarry made it clear that the downtown was not necessarily opposed to such businesses, but were requesting time to discuss the implications of allowing them in the downtown area as they were not originally anticipated when previous City regulations were created in relation to mobile food vendors.
“We’re just asking to be a part of the conversation,” said McGarry. “We want to take some time to look at whether or not food trucks or food trailers are appropriate in the downtown core.”
The talks of implementing an immediate freeze on the issuance of mobile food facilities permits brought Shaun and his business, Vida-Vital, to a halt. Having already put in thousands of dollars into electrical work, he did not expect any complications when originally applying. City Planning Director Debbie Whitmore, however, said that City staff did warn Shaun that he was spending money on a permit that he hadn’t received yet.
“I believe in equal opportunity,” said Shaun to the City Council. “But I also believe that it is unfair to halt my process. I have a family to provide for, and there was a date of opening that I originally anticipated.”
Councilman Steven Nascimento sympathized with the young entrepreneur, saying that the City had failed him for not having these discussions earlier.
“Chris had every reason to move forward based on the current municipal code,” said Nascimento. “It’s a shortcoming of the City for not having these regulations in place before this. In a sense, the City has failed you by not having this discussion before. I just don’t feel right about the fairness of having a new business come, then halfway through their process, suddenly changing the rules.”
Councilwoman Amy Bublak echoed Nascimento in saying that the City had failed the young entrepreneur, but that the regulations needed to be examined.
“We need people to come along and try new things, and we let you down,” said Bublak. “This wasn’t our intent, though.”
In an effort of reconciliation, Bublak suggested that the City grandfather Shaun’s business Vida-Vital in by allowing the issuance of his pending permit prior to entering a moratorium on further mobile food facilities permits.
The Council voted unanimously to allow Shaun to finish his permit process, and to conduct a study on the regulations surrounding mobile food vendors in the downtown core zoning district — which may or may not result in allowing such facilities in the area in the future.
“I would advise you not to make any significant changes to the particular site,” said Nascimento to Shaun. “After this process, you most likely won’t be able to operate there.”
The study will include discussions amongst local food vendors such as Vida-Vital, members of the TDPOA, and City staff from the Planning Department. Following these discussions, amendments to the current Turlock Municipal Code surrounding mobile food facilities and the downtown area will be submitted to the Turlock Planning Commission, who will then make a recommendation on the changes to the City Council – a procedure that Whitmore says they will try to make “a quick process.”
“I hope that we have a learning moment,” said Mayor John Lazar, who apologized to Shaun for the trouble he faced while trying to attain his permit. “We’re getting to the big leagues here in Turlock in the near future, and we don’t want to have this happen again.”