Mobile vending may again be coming before the Marathon City Council, prompted by a local teacher's concerns that the launch of his business was being blocked by city staff.
Steve Ferrise told the Free Press he has been working to get his mobile vending operation approved by the city since May, and has been repeatedly stymied. The business is already inspected and licensed by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
"I don't know why somebody would feel threatened by allowing another commercial food establishment in town," Ferrise said. "I don't know if they're thinking people from Miami would come down and set up on every corner. If code enforcement is doing their job, people would ask to see documentation."
Ferrise said the city's current controls for mobile vendors are adequate, if staff uses the tools it has to guard health and safety.
Planning Director George Garrett believes there is work to be done on ordinances controlling mobile vendors in the city, however. Garrett told the Free Press this week that he will be drafting a new ordinance that will deal with the amount of time a mobile vendor can spend in any one spot.
The draft of the ordinance was not available as of press time, but reports from city staff have the time on locaiton as short as 90 minutes. Garrett said he wasn't sure what the final propososed ordinance would say.
"I've had requests to deal with how long a vendor can be on site," Garrett said.
The draft ordinance will be presented to the Marathon Planning Commission at its Nov. 21 meeting. If it is passed on by that board, it would then make its way to the city council. Garrett said a memo would be circulated to council members to make them aware of the pending ordinance revision.
The city council first heard of perceived problems with the mobile vending ordinance from staff months ago, but asked for more information before staff spent time writing an ordinance on an issue they hadn't heard public complaints about.
"The council got hit with the discussion a little cold, and I thought it would be good to do a little more research and reread the code," said City Manager Roger Hernstadt. "What I took back from their comments is some said there was a potential problem, others said there was no problem. It told me we need to look at the code to see if there is room for improvement to the interpretation."
Ferrise said he made every attempt to confront any potential problems with his vending business head on, and went to multiple council members and staff.
Ferrise said the real trials started in July.
"They told me what the regulations were, then told me they needed landlord permission. Then they wanted drawings. All of September I was told plan reviews had been suspended," he said.
After finally getting word that no such suspension had been handed down, he applied for his first permit in late September.
That permit, for a site on 107th street, was denied.
"He didn't meet two criteria: Parking and setbacks," Garrett said. "The code very clearly states the use cannot disrupt existing required parking and cannot be within setbacks. It was both."
There were no remedies at that location, so Ferrise applied again at another location.
"The code says the property you seek a license for must have an active business with an active license. That property doesn't. It's next door," Garrett said of the new site near SALT.
Garrett told the Free Press that the second application had not been denied, however, because it would be possible for the property owners to go to fix the property situation with the county.
Hernstadt said he couldn't comment on whether the city would allow the food vending business to open if the property issues were solved and the conditions for the mobile vendor were brought into compliance with current codes.
"If I actually have a real case, I can react to that. What if scenarios are very difficult to deal with," Hernstadt said. "If he can find a location that doesn't have an issue, then we can talk about a permit."
For now, however, Ferrise's situation may not be solvable until Garrett's proposed ordinance is resolved.
Ferrise said he would have to see what type of time constraints were placed on mobile vendors before he would be able to make a judgement on whether it would be worth it to try and open the business should a new ordinance pass.
"It's basically unreasonable to think you could prepare a decent meal for somebody when you have a very short window," he said. "They're giving new meaning to fast food. That definitely would not be feasible to run a business on a time line that's so restrictive."
Ferrise said he would stay involved in the process to try to get his business back on track, and would be meeting with an attorney to discuss his options.
"It's just a frustrating process. The people who were going to help me with the business were all with the school district. We've lost our pay from the school board renegotiating our contract. We're paying more into our retirement now. We're trying to supplement our income so we can live in the Keys. It's getting more and more difficult," he said.
"I wanted to start a business that I loved. I wanted to bring something back of the Keys that I remember from when I started coming down in the late '70s," he said. "I wanted people to be able to enjoy fresh Florida Keys food that was reasonable."