In one corner, the city of Mesa: Burgers and tacos do not make a park.
In the other corner, the state of Arizona: Free the food trucks!
The “ring” of battle was the Mesa Board of Adjustments meeting last Wednesday morning, which bled into the afternoon.
At issue was Planning Director/Zoning Administrator Nana Appiah’s interpretation regarding Power Food Park: “The current activities on the property do not conform to the Zoning Ordinance definition of Parks and Recreation Facilities.”
The fightin’-est of the responses to that ruling came from Rep. Jacqueline Parker, who represents LD16. She warned the Board of Adjustment if it upheld the interpretation, “This body will be in violation of state law –and there are consequences for that.”
Parker, a Mesa resident, and two other state representatives – Peoria’s Kevin Payne, who also operates a food truck and wrote a bill regulating them, and Mesa’s Rusty Bowers, the House speaker – stressed legislation they passed in 2018 protect food truck operations such as this.
House Bill 2371 set up uniform guidelines for regulating “food mobile food vendors and mobile food units,” aka food trucks.
“What (Mesa) is trying to do is illegal,” Payne warned.
Power Food Park, on North Power Road just south of East McKellips Road, is a 2-acre lot that hosts around a dozen food trucks, with picnic and play areas and fire pits. After weekends-only hours during the summer, the food truck center recently expanded to six nights per week.
Appiah said owners submitted a site plan for a community park in 2019. But, he told the board, he was surprised when neighbors started complaining in late 2020 about noise, traffic and trash from a food truck operation –as food trucks were not part of the plan submitted.
At Power Food Park, the planning director stressed, “You don’t see recreation, volleyball – the things primary to a public park.”
But Ray Johnson sharply parried that the food trucks operate at what he and his partner David Darling turned into a park more than a decade after purchasing an empty lot.
“We met with neighbors, they opposed everything,” Johnson said. “They said, ‘Build us a park. Dave and I sat down and said, ‘How do you build a park?’
“We determined we would build a private park open to the public that was a picnic facility.”
He said Appiah told him after a visit “I can accept this as a park.”
(“When we went to the site, there was no food truck there,” Appiah rebutted.)
Tim LaSota, an attorney representing neighbors opposed to the project, scoffed at the veiled threats of the state reps.
“If the law said what they said it said – they wouldn’t be here,” LaSota said.
He stressed the city is simply ruling on a city law that is in place: “This state law does not prohibit you from enforcing this ordinance.”
And, he added, “This is just not a public park.”
Neighbors along East Halifax Drive and East Hobart Street also ridiculed the operation’s claims of being a park.
“It’s a vacant lot with a bunch of tables. It is not a park,” Ted Sparks said. “If the food trucks were not there, (people) wouldn’t be there.”
Sparks quoted from the city’s definition of a park being open from sunrise to sunset. “They don’t come close to that.”
Other neighbors complained of noise and traffic generated by Power Food Park, though that was not what the board was considering.
“We’re not regulating food trucks,” said Alexis Wagner, the board chair, kicking off discussion among the board members after nearly three hours of voices for and against the operation.
The question, she stressed, was whether Appiah’s ruling that Power Food Park was not operating as a park was accurate.
“The food trucks are the primary use, not the park,” board member Heath Reed said.
Board member Ethel Hoffman said she believed the original intent of the owners was to create a park. “I think it’s deviated from its original purpose from a public use to a commercial enterprise,” she said.
After driving past Power Food Park a few times, Hoffman decided, “It seemed to me more like a business operation than a park.”
“It’s not an open public park. It’s only open when the food trucks are there,” Nicole Lynam noted.
“I have an extremely hard time calling this a park,” board member Troy Glover added.
The board voted unanimously to deny the Power Food Park appeal.
Even so, Power Food co-owner Darling was upbeat when he spoke to the Tribune shortly after the board’s ruling.
“We absolutely will appeal it,” Darling said.
He said the city has not said the operation needs to close.
“We fully intend to stay open while we appeal and we have an active zoning case,” Darling said. “We’ll work through the process that allows us to stay open.”
For Parker, this was another example of the city’s treatment of small operations. “I’ve been very disappointed by how unfriendly the city of Mesa has become towards small businesses,” she said.
“I live down the street from Power Food Park,” the state representative added. “I’ve been to Power Food Park many times. It’s one of most entertaining, wholesome, family-friendly facilities in the state of Arizona.”
She said Appiah “Either never has been to the property which I don’t believe is the case or he is deliberately misrepresenting the operation.”
Parker gushed over Power Food Park: “It’s brilliant. It’s fun. It’s innovative. And it will likely represent the future of the restaurant industry.”
Responding to an email from the Tribune, Parker said the fight is hardly over.
“This is one more example we can use down the road for future legislation aimed at reigning in government at all levels—which constantly needs to be done in order to preserve a free society,” Parker said.
Darling insisted neighbors who complained are in the minority and most of the community agrees with Parker’s assessment.
“The citizens of Mesa have voted with their forks,” Darling proclaimed, “and they love Power Food Park.”