SURF CITY — At a packed, often tense town council meeting on Friday morning, council members and business owners debated conflicting interests surrounding an ordinance that allows for food trucks to operate on the property of a private business.
Over two hundred people attended the workshop meeting in the gymnasium of the Surf City Community Center, where town officials will conduct business indefinitely after the town hall was heavily damaged by Hurricane Florence.
The issue stemmed from a past miscommunication from an unidentified town official concerning whether or not food trucks are allowed to operate within the town. When they were told they could not allow food trucks in their parking lot, the owners of Salty Turtle Brewing Company successfully challenged the ordinance earlier in the year.
“Where was the miscommunication with the ordinance?” councilman Jeremy Shugarts asked Mayor Doug Medlin and Town Manager Ashley Loftis. “Because for all these years it was never, ‘No food trucks allowed.’ And when you really read into the ordinance — the ordinance is very gray.”
“It was misinterpreted, and we apologize for that,” responded Mayor Medlin. “But it was left to someone else to explain it, and I guess he miscommunicated. So we’re trying to clear that up.”
Loftis clarified that the ordinance currently allows for food trucks to operate on the property of a fixed business, but does not clarify details such as the amount of each truck’s sales that must go through the fixed business.
“It just states that a transient vendor may be on the property of a fixed business within the town. They are not allowed on the streets, they are not allowed on the right-of-way. And that’s kind of how it stands at the moment. It’s one of those things where the town can probably re-do the ordinance and make it a little more specific, a little more detailed. But that’s a discussion for council to have.”
For Councilwoman Nelva Albury, who spoke from a wheelchair beside the rest of the council members, the issue was not up for debate: the interests of local restaurant owners clearly outweigh those of out-of-town food trucks, she said.
“We discussed this loud and clear,” Albury said. “These food trucks come in today and they’re gone tomorrow. They take the money away from Surf City. And I’m here for the citizens of Surf City; I’m not for the ones coming from Wilmington, Jacksonville, and the rest of ‘em,” Albury said, to a loud burst of applause from some of those present.
“We have voted on this thing, and we do not like it for the property owners and the taxpayers of Surf City,” Albury said.
Business owners weigh in
Along with three council members who spoke on the issue — Shugarts, Albury, and Theresa Batts — a group of restaurant owners were also unified in their stance against food trucks, arguing for stronger regulations for out-of-town food trucks that take business away from local residents.
Surf City BBQ owner Guy Royal took to the podium first.
“We only make our money three or four months out of the year, and the rest of the time we hemorrhage money to keep the town going and keep our employees having a job,” Royal said.
According to Royal, it is unfair for food trucks to come from outside Pender County, not subjected to the same county health regulations that brick-and-mortar restaurants are subjected to, then “taking that money and leaving.” He backed Shugarts’ proposal to restrict their operations until after 9 p.m., and pointed to towns in California where food trucks can rent spaces from the town to park and operate.
“This will be the thing that y’all have to pick a side on,” Royal said, looking to the council members. ”It’s a divisive issue. Make sure you’re picking the side of people who are here with you all year round and not for those who are going to go back when the money runs up.”
Co-owner of Salty Turtle Dan Callender later took the microphone to argue on behalf of the food trucks, which are crucial to his brewery because he does not have a kitchen.
“We originally held off on food trucks because we got past misinformation, until we challenged the actual ordinance. I understand the restaurants’ concerns regarding non-permanence, but we too are a business on the island. We pay the impact fee, we pay taxes. Yes our food trucks enhance our business, but it’s still going back to Surf City, I believe,” Callender said.
He referred to an issue recently raised in Carolina Beach, where a group of food trucks successfully lobbied in court to amend the city code to allow for their presence on the island.
“Carolina Beach backed off because it’s unconstitutional to prevent food trucks from being on private property and serving in the community,” Callender said.
In response to restaurants’ concerns of food trucks taking away from local businesses during the crucial summer months, Callender argued that Surf City is no longer solely a summer beach community.
“We’re a year-round town now … We have large developments being built on the mainland. I think we have enough residents to support businesses year-round. It’s one of the risks we take as a business; if we’re down [on sales] in the winter, it’s just one of the risks we take as a business owner. I think we should accept that.”
Because of the ambiguity surrounding Section 11.89-90 of the ordinance that pertains to food trucks, the council has asked the town attorney, Charles Lanier from Jacksonville, to review legal restrictions that can be applied and bring forth suggestions to a future meeting.
“Obviously our existing ordinance does not address the food truck issue as it should. There is nothing in the ordinance that specifically addresses that kind of business and ensures the proper restrictions that can be placed on it,” Lanier said.
“We want to look after our own people,” Mayor Medlin said. “As everything else, there’s a legal way to do anything.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com