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Southold Town could allow local food trucks at farms, wineries to help struggling businesses

As business starts up again, discussions have centered on the outdoors: Allowing more space on sidewalks, outdoor dining and creative use of parks and community green spaces.

Food trucks, Councilwoman Sarah Nappa believes, should be a part of those conversations.

During a Town Board work session Tuesday, she suggested the board begin discussing ways to permit food trucks to operate at commercially or agriculturally zoned businesses — namely farms and wineries, in light of the current health crisis, arguing that the move would throw a lifeline to businesses threatened by the COVID-19 shutdown.

“This could be something that keeps people in business at a time where we are seriously looking at losing a lot of businesses,” she said.

Food trucks are not currently a permitted use within town code, unless on private property, some commercial properties or as part of a special event permit. Dozens of wineries have been cited since 2018 for hosting food trucks.

Ms. Nappa noted food trucks are already widely regulated by the county health department, which requires operators to be licensed and insured and hold a food manager’s certificate. She said the town could impose its own restrictions, such as requiring food trucks to be linked to a Southold kitchen, obtaining a town permit or requiring businesses to include food truck placement on their site plan.

Supervisor Scott Russell fired back, arguing that all businesses will find it hard to bounce back from the crisis and inquired as to how many businesses this change would impact.

 “I’m not sure telling a restaurant that ‘in order to help save you, we’re going to need to make you invest more money’ is probably the best way to go,” he said, since not every local restaurant has a food truck.

“It’s not a requirement,” Ms. Nappa said, arguing the board must begin somewhere. “It’s an option.”

During a particularly contentious exchange, which had the supervisor’s leadership publicly called into question, Mr. Russell raised a number of issues with the proposed changes, from added financial stress on businesses if they’re required to submit site plans and possibility that the requirement would force businesses into Zoning Board of Appeals hearings. “That’s far more expensive, and far more time consuming,” he said, calling for a way to encourage businesses cross-promoting each other without any added bureaucratic processes.

Councilman Jim Dinzio advocated for an emergency, short-term response to address the food truck issue. “We’re in a dire situation right now,” he said. Councilwoman Jill Doherty agreed, calling for tackling the code change later on. Outdoor dining, she said, should also be considered to aid restaurants in the age of social distancing.

In a letter to town officials shared with The Suffolk Times, Bedell Cellars CEO Trent Preszler asked them to lift the ban on food trucks.

Mr. Preszler estimated sales revenue has already dropped 60% from last year, with additional loses of over $1 million from cancelled weddings. 

“We need every possible marketing angle we can find to try and scratch out a living this year,” he wrote, pointing out that he doesn’t have a financial stake in any food truck operation.

“We’re already facing unfair competition from the wineries and breweries in Riverhead Town,” he said, which does not regulate food trucks. “Here in Southold, the wineries will be left serving paltry crackers, washed down with bankruptcy.”

Some local restaurant owners, already struggling amid the health crisis, worry that the measure [to allow food trucks] could further harm their businesses.

“It seems to me it’s just a way for the wineries to circumvent the code,” said Sharon Sailor, who owns Front Street Station in Greenport.

Chris Richards of CJs Grill in Mattituck—who also owns a food truck—said he’s worried that food trucks based out of town might capitalize on the opportunity if food trucks were to be permitted.

“I don’t want food trucks coming in from Long Beach, who don’t pay taxes here or employ local people,” he said.

He and Ms. Sailor agreed that restaurants and wineries should work together to remain viable. “Most if not all wineries will not let outside food in,” Ms. Sailor said. In the age of take-out and delivery, she said that could “be the start of something great.”

Mr. Dinizio and Ms. Nappa each pointed to actions taken in Greenport and Riverhead, where officials have begun focusing on increasing outdoor space.

“We’re nowhere near there,” Mr. Dinizio said. “We are light-years behind [Greenport and Riverhead].”

A code change would require a public hearing, which raised concerns over using virtual meeting platforms. Mr. Russell said he has several reservations about holding public hearings online for fear of alienating segments of the population.

Town attorney Bill Duffy said that a second option — which would not require public input — gives the supervisor the ability to issue a temporary, emergency rule to modify current code regulations that prohibit food trucks from operating on agriculturally zoned land.

Mr. Russell vehemently opposed such action, calling it a dangerous precedent.

“The intent of Executive Orders is to make decisions based on the safety and welfare of the entire community, not to carve out favors for special interests,” he said in an email Wednesday morning.

“I can close swing sets, I can do restrictions at the beaches,” he told board members at the work session, alluding to orders he’s already issued amid the pandemic. “You want me to decree that [food trucks] are allowed, never mind the fact that the public hasn’t had a right to weigh in on what is a fundamental change to the code?”

But other members of the Town Board feel the unprecedented nature of the crisis is a good reason to relax the rules.

While many agricultural businesses have remained open and were considered essential businesses throughout the pandemic, wineries and tasting rooms will not be permitted to open until New York reaches Phase 3 of reopening. Restaurants are currently limited to curbside pickup and delivery.

Ms. Doherty said the board should first pursue what can be done in the short-term, since changing code can be a lengthy, legal process. “How do we fix it for the short term, right now, so people can get up and running when the governor opens it up?” she said. “We need to have a plan now so people can plan for that.”

The discussion on food trucks is expected to continue when the Town Board meets again June 16.